Happy Birthday, Brendan. You would be 34 today, I think, if I did my math right. It never was my strong suit but this kind of math is admittedly more difficult to do. I start out counting on my fingertips at ‘87, okay then that means in ‘97 you were ten . . . then I think, ‘wait, really?’ then I go on to ‘07 you were twenty, and then I stop and think ‘Oh my god, it’s so sad.’ 20 in 2007, plus ‘08, 09, ‘10, ‘11, ‘12, ‘13 equals six. Twenty-six when you died. Damn. You were only twenty-six.
I made you a cake. I think you’d like it. I know, I know, it’s not Funfetti, and I know you also like to have the same cake Dad-chocolate cake and coffee frosting-but hear me out! This is something different, but it’s good! I’ve made it a bunch of times now. It’s called Nusskuchen. I randomly came across it on the internet when I was Googling recipes for cakes made with hazelnut meal (although it seems typical for it to be made with a mix of nut meals, like hazelnut, almond, walnut…). It turns out, from what I can tell, it’s a pretty common type of cake made and eaten all over Germany, and it’s something you can even buy in box mix form, too, if you don’t have someone who wants to bake it from scratch for you. It fucking sucks that you’re not here to try it, because I’d love your feedback. I don’t think I ever told you this, but I respected your taste in food. Your choices were always good for providing me with inspiration to try and order things other than my old favorites, like your chicken and broccoli fettuccine alfredo from Gino’s, and your Monte Cristos from The Egg’s Nest.
But, you’re not here. Not here to sing to or celebrate with. Not here to hug and apologize to. Not here to eat cake with and possibly forgive me. Not here to live and get older with and see how things turn out. But I’m still here. And I’m still thinking about you, everyday, and especially today. Your birthday.
When I think of you now, I often remember you as a little kid. As you were growing up. Straight, super blonde hair, big blue eyes, bright white teeth showing behind your beaming, happy smile. The free, happy smile of a joyful, unbroken spirit. Hey, who was it that used to talk about your hair, saying “When I was growing up, we would have called him a ‘towhead.’” Was that Grandma? Or Mom? Remember thinking it was toe-head and wondering what a toe had to do with having blonde hair? What a bunch of weirdos we all are in this family, right?
For a long time, after you died, all that came up when I thought of you was painful. Not just the memories I have of you, but also that I couldn’t seem to picture you as you were before. Before you died. Before the heroin. I couldn’t—and can’t—pinpoint the last time we talked, or the last time I saw you alive. At the very least, three years, if not more, before you died. Seems stupid, now. That’s some hard guilt to put down. I’m sorry I cut you out of my life and it turned into forever. I miss you. I love you. I’m sorry.
Nowadays, when I think of you, I remember you how you were. I remember you smiling. I remember you happy. And that makes me happy to have that picture of you in my mind. A picture of you laughing. And it’s always the same. We were on a family vacation somewhere. Going to or coming from. Maybe North or South Carolina. Doubt it was Florida. No. Couldn’t have been Florida. I was still girlish, but teen enough to be brooding if that makes sense. How old were we? If I was 11 then you were 7. Or maybe I was 12 and you were 8.
We were stopped at a rest stop of some kind. Maybe a restaurant, or a fast food place or something. Bathroom break from the long car ride. I see Mom’s van parked in the lot as I start to come back to the car and see I’m the last one, everyone else was already back, strapped in, and waiting to go, listening to their Walkmans or what have you. Dad driving, Mom next to him, Annie and Jimmy in the way back, and you in the driver’s side bucket seat, next to me. The sliding door on the passenger side is open, everyone waiting for me to jump into my bucket seat right there. And so that’s what I did. Or at least, that’s what I tried to do. I got a running head start. I can hear Dad, “Come on already! Let’s go! Time’s a wastin’! We ain’t got all day, here! Whadya think this is? Anyhow?” saying some, or all, of those things.
I gathered some final speed, made my calculations, and pounced off the curb where it met the parking lot with a flying leap! I was gliding through the air, my right leg pointed out in front, like a soaring ballerina, as my left leg stretched out behind me and my arms swung out and open to each side, a portrait of grace. ‘Ahhhh,’ I can hear the angels sing, a dulcet choir, as I approach my landing and prepare to duck my head and tuck my body into the van. BAM! My forehead clunks into the top of the van, right above the opening. “OW!” I proclaim, stunned, too young to shout the F word. And then came the laughter. The outburst:
“Pffffff...BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, inhale, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, knee slap, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, rocking back and forth in the seat while knee-slapping and crying from the laughter, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” You laugh! You. Laugh. I cry. Then, and now. But now they’re happy tears. Because I made you laugh. My pain gave you the biggest laugh, ever. This is the first happy memory of you that came to me. It only happened just last year. It made me so happy. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have that, and to be able to hang on to that. I’m sure at the time I was seething and plotting my revenge, but I couldn’t be gladder for it now. We always did fight like cats and dogs. Remember Dad saying that admonishingly? “You two are always fighting like cats and dogs!”
I don’t know if you remember this, but, heh, remember that time I dunked Nutkin in the pool to get him soaking wet and then stuck him in the outside freezer? The old yellow one on the back porch that closed with a latch instead of a handle? I pulled it off without you even knowing. Hehe. What a little asshole I was, right? Or as Mom used to call us, “you little shit pot!”
Nutkin is actually one of the reasons I thought you’d like this cake, ‘nusskuchen,’ or ‘nut cake,’ just made me think of your favorite stuffed animal and sidekick, squirrel Nutkin. He was cute, and with an extra long tail that could wrap around from his bum up between his paws that would velcro together around it. It started off a plush, soft, light gray little Precious Moments vibes stuffed animal from Rite Aid, but the years were rough on Nutkin. His plastic eyes came a little loose. His whiskers kept falling out, and his fur became dull and stubbly, like one of Brutus’ toys gets after a little while. You never got to meet Brutus. He’s my dog, and he’s such a good boy. I can’t remember if you ever met Otto. Did you? He was my first dog. He died less than a month after you did. God, I miss him so much. You would have loved him too. You loved all animals so much and were so sweet with them. Brutus and Otto would have loved you too.
Speaking of poor old worn out Nutkin, remember your Silky? After you died, we found an old picture of you with that thing when it was brand new: pristine, pastels of yellow, orange, and green. No frayed edges. The yellow, silk-like ribbon trimming the outside of your blankie—your Silky—though I’m pretty sure I’m the one who started it by naming my blanket Silky, first.
Remember that time I locked myself in the blue bathroom and, well, tried to lock myself in the blue bathroom, you could open any door in the house because Jimmy had taught you how to pick the locks, so in order to be sure you couldn’t get in, I had to lock the door to buy time while I pulled the top drawer of the vanity out slightly, enough to block the door from swinging open, while I unhinged the doors to the laundry and flung it open, backwards almost, to meet the drawer halfway across the bathroom door at a point where it reinforced the barricade from another angle, thus strengthening my position.
I must’ve been really mad, too. I had taken what little scrap end was left of Silky and ran to the blue bathroom with it. After unlocking the door your little angry hands shot through the open space, grasping at the air, clasping at me, though far out of reach. I flushed the toilet over and over again. I can’t remember if I further taunted you by merrily repeating ‘Bye, Silky! Bye-bye! Oh no, Silky’s gone down the toilet, oooooooops!’ or not, but I really tried to sell you on my charade while all the while I had already shoved Silky down into the nooks and crannies of dirty laundry in the hamper. There was no safe way to get out of the bathroom and passed you unscathed, so this little act of mine had to be worth the punches and scratches I was about to be dealt by you in your shock, anger, and sadness at the perceived loss of your beloved blanket. Yeah, you caused some physical pain as I fled the scene, but I probably won the war of the emotional scarring battle that time. Again, I was an asshole. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I miss you. I love you.
Oh, but we did fight like cats and dogs. The music that plays in my mind is the song from that X-Files episode where the two pretty blonde high school girls who shared a birthday were born under some whacky cosmic convergence that gave them psychic/telekinetic abilities and they were killing people, remember that one? And Ryan Reynolds was in that episode! And the townspeople form an angry pitchfork mob looking to catch the Satanists that they think are truly responsible for it. And Scully starts smoking. And Mulder starts drinking, both of them behaving strangely, while Mulder clicks through channel after channel of the same thing on TV in his motel room, and old cartoon of a firetruck with that music clambering on in the background, hold on, I’ll Google it or it will drive me crazy…Okay, well the episode is called Syzygy, and it wasn’t a cartoon playing, but an episode of the Keystone Cops, apparently, and the song was “The Sabre Dance,” by Aram Khachaturian. Whew, glad I figured that one out. There’s a great version of it by the Berlin philharmonic.
Anyway, that’s the soundtrack in my mind when I picture us fighting. One chasing the other around the house furious at some egregious act by the other, running and outrunning the other in circles as though our lives depended on it. I’d run into my bedroom just in time to slam and lock the door in your face before you caught me, but I wasn’t safe, because you’d run over to the other door, that didn’t have a lock on it, and twist the doorknob open and throw yourself against the door to break it down as I tried desperately to hold it shut with both hands until you’d tire of that and grab a bamboo skewer to begin picking the lock to the main door.
It’s like we were raised by wolves. Then should one of us have been extra butthurt and gone to tell Mom, we’d likely both end up punished. Made to sit in chairs at the kitchen table in silence for forty-five minutes as Mom set the timer on the old wall oven before walking away and leaving us to avoiding our conflict while she went to tend to her plants or something. We internalized the dysfunctional lesson, meanwhile, one of us would make a face at the other, or whisper some other taunt that demanded a reaction, and we’d scuffle over to each other quietly, still seated in our chairs as punishment demanded, and hit and swat at each other with our hands and arms until it got too heated and Mom would yell “What’s going on in there? You’re supposed to be thinking about what you’ve done!” Or something like that, and we’d scuttle our chairs back to their spots waiting for the time to run out so we could retreat back to our corners until the next time a fight kicked off.
You know what? I’m sorry. And it seems so much easier to say it, and mean it, now, now that I’ve been practicing saying it to you all these years in my head since you died. Now that I’m not mad at you anymore. For what it’s worth, I haven’t been mad at you one day since you died. I want you to know that. All the reasons I had to hold on to for that fell away. I just miss you, and I’m sorry, and I love you. Which is why I made this offering to you, in cake form, on your birthday. It’s my way of making new memories in memory of you. If I were home, I’d bring flowers to the grave for you, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa. Until then, there’s this. It’s something, at least. Happy Birthday, Brendan. You are loved.
Nusskuchen for Brendan
heavy cream------------------> as needed
A sampling of Nusskuchen tests along the way
Hello! I'm Kat.
Cooker, baker, amateur pottery maker.
I'm a CIA graduate (culinary arts & applied food studies) who previously studied anthropology.
Food obsessed. Anxiety disorder. Grief bearer.
Here you'll find recipes for what I'm currently feeling and sometimes even why!