Time is a tricky thing, Daniel said to his mother when he was still very young. When you wanted to savor something, it would speed by in a blur. When you wanted to get past something, it would drag on forever. Elaine Garland recorded the quote in her journal, because it was such an astute observation for an eight-year-old.
Much later, she would go back and read the entry, and think to herself that memories were that way, too. When you wanted to forget, everything would return in raw, brutal focus. When you wanted to remember, the details would slip away like a dream at dawn. It was that way for all of them now, though it was something they seldom discussed, at least not with one another. Nearly fifteen years had passed, both slowly and suddenly.
It happened the day after Daniel’s twenty-fifth birthday, and three days before Christmas. He was halfway through his third year of medical school at Yale, and had just returned home for the holidays following his clinical neuroscience rotation, bringing with him his girlfriend, Sophie, a beautiful, upper-crust Brit whom Daniel once called the most charming woman he’d ever met. The two had been dating for more than a year, but this was her first visit to Atlanta, as well as the first time meeting his parents and sisters. Everyone felt varying degrees of anxious, eager, hopeful. Elaine worried the most, both because she was the worrying kind and because Daniel didn’t have the best track record when it came to girls. His high school sweetheart had been clingy, his college girlfriend controlling.
But within seconds of their arrival, she felt enormous relief, taking to Sophie at once. A keeper, Rob called her, clearly proud that his son not only was in medical school but also could land such an exquisite creature. Daniel’s sisters approved as well, Josie dazzled by Sophie’s style and beauty, openly admiring her expensive European clothes and shoes, while Meredith, who often accused her sister of being shallow, liked Sophie in spite of those trappings. Most important, they could all tell that she brought out the best in Daniel—which was saying a lot. He was, without a doubt, the shining star of their family.
Sophie earned more points the following morning when she insisted that Daniel and Rob keep their long-standing father-son birthday-breakfast Waffle House tradition. She kissed him goodbye, pushed him out the door, then helped Elaine bake a chocolate cake from scratch, another Garland tradition.
“What was Daniel like as a child?” she asked as she awkwardly stirred the batter, after confessing she was clueless in the kitchen.
Elaine thought for a moment, then said he was exactly the same now as he’d always been. The classic, driven firstborn. A perfectionist. But also sensitive and sentimental, quirky and kind. “The only real difference is his temper,” she added with a laugh. “Thank goodness he grew out of that.”
“Oh? He used to have a temper, did he?” Sophie asked.
Elaine nodded, then told her favorite tantrum tale—the time Daniel hit his bedroom wall with a wooden bat after Josie scribbled pink crayon graffiti on his treasured Hank Aaron card. “You can still see the plaster where it was patched,” she said fondly.
“Wait. Is this the baseball card he still carries in his wallet?” Sophie asked, her accent making everything she said sound so earnest.
“That’s the one,” Elaine said, then went on to tell her about the home run Daniel hit the day after the incident—and how he had christened the card his good-luck charm.
THAT EVENING, THEY all went to Blue Ridge Grill for Daniel’s birthday dinner. Looking Ivy League sophisticated, Daniel wore a jacket, silver knot cuff links (his gift from Sophie), and sleek black loafers with a long European toe that were unlike anything in Rob’s preppy wardrobe. The two teased each other as they got out of the car at the valet stand: Where the hell did you get those, Danny boy?…Lose the old-man tassels, Dad….You’re wearing enough hair gel to choke a horse….At least I have hair.
Elaine knew their banter was a sign of their closeness, and her heart swelled with affection and gratitude as they were escorted to the round table near the fireplace that Rob always requested. She wasn’t sure when it had happened exactly, but her son was now a man, and very nearly a doctor, the first in their family. And it wasn’t just Daniel who was thriving. They were all in a good place, she thought. Rob was doing well at work, and hadn’t had a drink in three years. Their marriage wasn’t perfect, but it felt solid. Josie and Meredith were works in progress, one a little too wild, the other far too moody; yet each was following her passion, studying to be a teacher and an actress, respectively.
The conversation that night was smart and lively, heavy on current events. September 11 was still a fresh wound. The war in Afghanistan was under way. Enron had just filed for bankruptcy, and Winona Ryder had shoplifted. And in news that seemed to interest only Daniel and Sophie: the Earth’s record high barometric pressure had just been recorded in Mongolia—over a thousand hectopascals, a measurement that meant absolutely nothing to the rest of them but would remain lodged in Elaine’s brain for years to come.
“You’re such a nerd,” Josie ribbed her brother at one point, though she secretly admired his intelligence. She had always relied on the force of her personality, but a girl like Sophie made her rethink things, and she vowed to get more serious about her studies in her final, fifth-year stretch of college.
Meredith, too, reflected on her life that evening. She was as diligent and hardworking as her brother, but she was more of a loner than he, and often felt a void she could never quite pinpoint. Maybe it was love, she thought that night, watching Daniel with Sophie. Maybe that was what was missing.
After dinner, they went home to have cake in the dining room, Elaine pulling the good china and silver from the butler’s pantry. Rob lit twenty-five candles, then they all sang off-key (except for Sophie, who had a clear soprano voice) and watched Daniel close his eyes for several seconds before blowing out the flames in just one try.
“What did you wish for?” Josie asked, the way someone always did.
Of course Daniel wouldn’t say. He just smiled a secretive smile before Rob cut the cake and he opened his family presents—a leather briefcase from his parents, flannel pajamas from Josie, a coffee-table book about baseball from Meredith. They all retired a short time later, Elaine pretending that she didn’t hear the creaky floorboard outside the guest room.