The days following my flight into the woods had little to distinguish one from another. I woke up and began my studies while Doctor Clark tended to his patients. I kept myself out of sight, either in the kitchen, my bedroom, or the library. At lunchtime, I joined Nurse Williams and the doctor in the kitchen. During the meal, they tried to talk me into going somewhere—to the park, to the store, or to the library—and I adamantly refused every time. I told them that I had no desire to play, needed to buy nothing, and that there were plenty of books upstairs. I didn’t want or need to go anywhere around people. The backyard of the house butted up to the woods, however, and, after about half an hour, the adults went back to work, and I slipped out the back door, usually carrying with me a penknife, several pencils, and a pad of paper.
No one ever came around the back of the house, and I had discovered that I enjoyed drawing even more than reading. I sat on the back porch and sketched the forest, the birds, the flowers, or I walked into the woods a short distance and drew the squirrels, rabbits, and deer. The silence I had learned at my father’s boot enabled me to observe many animals which would have been scared off by the average person. Occasionally, I would saddle Aurora and take a longer trip to find new things to draw. I felt safe in the woods, and I let myself relax as my pencil flew across the paper. I didn’t think I was a very good artist, but it felt nice to let the constant inner struggle go for a short while and to let myself feel contentment, happiness even.
After hours outside, I went back to the house in time for dinner. Doctor Clark asked me about my activities in the woods. He knew that I drew, and the first time I showed him my creations, he praised them liberally, but I knew he was just being kind. I spoke to him with polite, but short answers, and I knew he wanted more information from me, but I didn’t feel like opening up to him. I was convinced that my situation at his house was temporary, and I refused to let myself get too complacent, only to have it ripped away from me later. When dinner was finished each day, he helped me with some of the more difficult concepts I was learning, and then we went to bed.
That was how our days went until the twelfth of July, 1933, my seventeenth birthday. When I came in for dinner, my sketchbook filled with six more drawings than when I had left, I stopped in the back doorway, shocked. Doctor Clark and Nurse Williams were standing by the table which was covered with a bright red tablecloth. On the cloth were two cases, one leather and one wooden. Next to them was a cake with white frosting and seventeen candles.
“Happy birthday, Erik!”
I slowly walked into the house and set my pad and pencil down on the counter. I looked at Doctor Clark in confusion. “What is this?”
The smiles on the adults' faces faded, and they looked at each other.
“What do you mean?” the doctor asked. “It's a birthday party.”
“Oh,” I said shortly, nodding my head. I had read about birthday parties.
“Erik,” Nurse Williams placed her hand on my arm, and I looked at her, “haven't you ever had a birthday party before?”
I shook my head. “Of course not,” I responded bitterly. “Do you actually think my father would have allowed that? Can you really imagine him celebrating my birth?”
She cringed slightly at the venom in my questions, and she looked at the doctor as if asking for help. He saw the look and came to me, quickly enveloping me in a hug.
“He may not have, Erik, but we certainly do,” he said softly, and, despite my attempt to retain my aloofness, I responded to his kindness. I refused to let myself cry, even in happiness or relief, but I did allow my head to drop against his shoulder, and I returned his hug.
“Thank you,” I whispered sincerely, and he hugged me even tighter. When he finally released me, I looked up and saw a bright smile on his face. Tears glistened in his eyes, though, and I felt shame at the thought that I had let myself treat him poorly.
“You are more than welcome, Erik,” he answered, and then he gestured to one of the kitchen chairs. “Sit; we have some things for you.”
I did as he asked, and then Nurse Williams handed the leather case to me. I took it and looked up at her.
“This is from me, Erik; I hope you like it,” she said with a smile.
I gently turned the case over in my hands. It was about a foot long and six inches wide, and the leather gave off a crisp, new smell. I slowly unzipped it, and inside were various grooming items—a comb, a clothes brush, a small mirror, a razor, and three metal containers. I opened the containers and found soap, shaving cream, and aftershave. I didn’t need the shaving items yet, but I knew I would someday. I smiled brightly for the first time in a long time, and I looked up.
“Thank you, Nurse Williams,” I said, amazed that she had spent money on me.
“You are welcome, Erik,” she replied, an answering smile on her face.
Doctor Clark took the larger, wooden case from the table and held it out to me. I closed the leather case, placed it on the table, and reached for the box. I took the same care in holding it. It was a cube, about two feet on each side, and it had a handle on the top with sturdy metal clasps holding it closed. I set it on my lap and opened them before slowly lifting the lid. My eyes grew wide, and I took a long, deep breath at the sight before my eyes. In a tray just below the lid were dozens of tubes of oil paints, various sizes of paintbrushes, sketching pencils, erasers, and other art supplies. Strapped to the lid were an oval-shaped palette and a good number of drawing pads. I saw that there were handles on the tray, and I lifted it out of the box to find the bottom of the box filled with small canvases. I let my fingers trail reverently over the smooth wood of the box and then over the items inside.
I didn’t know how long I sat there, mesmerized by the image before me, but I jumped when Doctor Clark chuckled. I looked up at him, my mouth agape, and he knelt down by my chair.
“Can I assume you like it, Erik?” he questioned, happiness crinkling his eyes.
Unable to speak, I simply nodded, and although I felt tears forming in my eyes, I had no desire to stop them. I was awed that the doctor thought of such a present for me, and I was overwhelmed. I turned slightly and threw my arms around his neck and laid my head on his shoulder, allowing the tears to trickle down my cheeks and disappear into his coat. He wrapped his arms around me and held me tightly. We sat there for a long time until I was again in control of myself, and I sat back. I realized that the doctor's kindness and thoughtfulness had found a way behind the wall I had built around myself, and it surprised me to find that I was eager and willing to let him in.
“Thank you, Doctor Clark,” I said quietly. I gave him another hug. “Thank you.”
He chuckled again and responded just as quietly, “You're welcome, my boy. I am glad you like it.”
The pleased tone of his voice made me felt guilty for having kept him at arm's length for so long, but when I looked at him, his smile reassured me that everything was all right between us, which pleased me more than I would have expected.
He stood up and went to the kitchen cupboard before coming back with a box of matches. I closed the wooden box and set it on the floor as he lit the candles on the cake. He scooted it up to me and said, “Now, before you blow out the candles, you must make a wish.”
There was no hesitation when I closed my eyes and spoke, for there was only one thing that I wished for. “I wish I knew what happened to my mother,” I said quietly, and then I opened my eyes and gently blew until all of the flames were extinguished.
My words caused the others' eyes to fill with tears, but they did not fall. Doctor Clark instead cleared his throat, reached into a drawer, and pulled out a knife before cutting three slices off of the cake. Nurse Williams wiped her eyes before she moved to the ice cream freezer on the counter and scooped out some of the cold treat, which she added next to the cake the doctor had put on the plates. The pall that had fallen over the festivities with my wish slowly dissipated, and we spent the next fifteen minutes or so seated around the table, eating the sweets in companionable silence.
When we finished, Nurse Williams stood up and put her plate and fork in the sink. “Well, Doctor, Erik, I should be going; it's getting late.”
We both stood up and I stepped up to her. “Thank you again for the present,” I said, and I didn’t resist when she reached out and gave me a quick hug.
“I hope you get some good use out of it,” she answered, and with a final pat on my unblemished cheek, she left the kitchen, and I heard the front door click shut behind her.
During this time, the doctor had cleared the table and placed the remaining cake on the counter. When I turned to look at him, he was placing sandwich fixings next to it.
“Sandwiches?” I asked. “Aren't those for lunches?”
He chuckled once again—it was a good sound, I decided—and said, “Well, I'm too tired to cook, and since it's your birthday, I figured we could just take it easy tonight.”I smiled and joined him at the counter. As we made our sandwiches, I knew that this was one birthday I would never forget.