I had a birthday last week. Not a remarkable one, just one that trails along toward the end of a decade of life, hinting at the zero to come. In recognition, I decided to sneak home a bit early, pulling my car into the garage at around a quarter of five.

When I opened the car door and stepped out, what I should have heard was the shrill barking of the dog I "inherited." And there was that but something else as well. Several loud "clunks" rang clearly through the floor of the house above. My house used to clunk a lot. My beloved and I raised four children and they were not a quiet bunch. In fact, when silence did reign, it was typically a portent of something that bore immediate investigation. But our quartet of progeny had long since abandoned their parents and, unless my wife had taken up kickboxing or life-size Jenga, I couldn’t imagine what sort of storm could be bearing down on my quiescent home.

Before I reveal the solution to that mystery, though, a flashback is necessary. Back to March 2020, the point when the real South Dakota pandemic mobilization began. Schools closed to physical learning and I lost access to my grandchildren. The decision to cut me off from them was a sound one, even if I regretted it a dozen times a day. My daughter and her husband had welcomed their fourth child, a blonde-haired boy named Seth, into their home in May. Soon after, a severe case of RSV landed him in the PICU and a day there turned into many days there and in the pediatrics unit. The faith I generally have in modern progress turned as well, into that cold sweat one exudes when irrational fear strikes to home.

By March, though, Seth was home and doing well. But we all knew his past history made him a candidate for other infections and so his family wisely erected a shield around him, one that did not allow for his siblings to go for Saturday pancakes with Papa, singing stroller rides, or any of the other activities grandparenthood permits, even if the real cause is the second childhood that emerges with the waning of middle age.

I was bereft.

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How was I to spend even my limited free time if denied — again, appropriately, prudently — the company of grandchildren? Historically speaking, it was a good time to have it happen. After all, I could FaceTime the older three, read books and have book discussions together, and even have them over to the backyard while the older set sat on the deck above and beyond. But none of this worked for the youngest. Seth was growing up increasingly without a genuine experience of his Papa (oh, yeah, and his grandma too.) I couldn’t replace embraces and hand-holding, feedings with warmed bottles and mashed peas, tucks into cribs, and romping together on a toy-strewn floor.

How would this dearth change, possibly irreparably, my relationship with my tow-headed, serious-expressioned grandson? Even if the pandemic finally relented, would it come too late, the damage done?

Sixteen days before my birthday, I received the second dose of my COVID vaccination. My daughter and son-in-law recognized the fact by bringing all the children to my home, unbeknownst to me, for the first time in 13 months. The clunking in the floor boards above as I returned from work were the audible evidence of that fact. Legos and Lincoln Logs and baby dolls were flying. When I opened the door into the house from the garage, their voices confirmed the joyful reality.

I shot up the stairs and greeted the three older ones with shouts and hugs. But one hung back. I knelt down at the point where the living room carpet met the kitchen tile and looked at Seth from across the room. He stared back.

Soon, ever so slowly, he toddled across that distance until we were less than a foot apart. Then he lowered his head, tucked it into my chest, and we embraced as if we had been doing it since the day he was born.

And an unremarkable birthday became the best ever.