This is, in a way, a story about love at first sight because the first time I saw Annie I fell in love with her. It was my 21st birthday. It was her first. Annie is my niece. That day is one I will always remember. My fiancée, Laura, had taken me home with her from college to meet her family.
"Family," was a word I wasn't really familiar with. I was an orphan and the only 'families' I had ever been in were the foster kind. Some of them were better than others, but it always felt like I didn't belong, like it wasn't a "real" family. When I met Laura's parents, her sister and her husband, and they told me "welcome to the family" they meant it and I knew it was real. And then there was little Annie; the first of what my new family hoped was a whole flock of grandchildren.
This was a day of celebrations; my engagement to Laura, Annie's first birthday, and of course my birthday. Mom Johnson (as I came to call her) was determined that we celebrate with a feast. She even had three beautiful cakes, one for each event. I felt like I had the family I had been denied. After we had eaten our fill and moved into the living room to relax and talk, Joanna, my sister-in-law-to-be, helped Annie find her "wabby" and a bottle and they came into the room with us. To the surprise of everyone, Annie crawled into my lap.
"I don't believe this," Joanna said. "She doesn't go to strangers. She'll barely go sit in Grandpa's lap!" Annie smiled up at me, and I instinctively kissed her the top of her head. She gave a happy little sigh, settled even deeper into my arms and very quickly went to sleep. Joanna soon took her off to her crib and the rest of us spent the afternoon in conversation. I don't remember the topics, but I'll always remember meeting Annie.
Laura and I didn't get married right away because of our school schedules, so when the wedding finally took place Annie was four and acted as our ring bearer. Through all this time, and the years to come, Annie would be stuck to me like glue. She was terribly upset when Laura and I left on our honeymoon without her. There were later trips we all took together. Practically every summer, Mom and Dad would take us somewhere exotic. Every spring, of course, Annie and I would celebrate our birthdays together.
Life was very good, but there were some clouds in our sunny sky, too. For one thing, no matter how hard we tried, Laura and I weren't able to have children. The doctors ran a lot of tests on us and kept telling us there was nothing wrong with either of us, but we were still childless. I think that just drew us closer to Annie and we lavished her with the attention that we had hoped to display to our own. Joanna and Will had decided to wait a few years between kids, but then Joanna was diagnosed with endometriosis and eventually had a hysterectomy. It turned out that Annie would be the only grandchild. It just made her more precious to us all.
The years flew by and my career took off. By the time I was thirty I was very high up in what became one of the bigger dot-com companies and, thanks to them going public, I was also very wealthy. I decided to take some of that nest egg and form my own information technology company, which I headquartered in Virginia, near Washington, DC. It was only a couple of hours from the rest of the family in Richmond and we saw a lot of them. Annie spent most of her spring breaks and summer vacations with us, and of course, we always celebrated our birthdays together. I watched as she grew from a skinny little kid into a beautiful young lady. Annie turned out to be a very talented young lady, as well, with a voice like an angel and a deep love of music.
The summer after Annie turned 13, she came up to stay with me before we all went to Europe for a two-week trip. Everyone else was traveling there ahead of us because I had a business conference in Florida first. The plan was for Annie to go with me, and then we'd go to Disney World before joining them later. We never got to go. We were just finishing our packing when the news reports came on the TV. A plane had crashed on its landing in Rome. It was their plane. There were no survivors. Annie and I watched in horror as we realized that all the family either of us had was on that airplane. We were now the only family either of us had left.
I'll confess. I was a basket case. I never would have made it through the months that followed without Annie's gentle strength. Annie says the same thing, though. I suppose we leaned on each other. The sad business of dealing with the family estates and inheritances fell to us alone, with only the family's lawyers to help guide us through the process. I took nothing for myself - I'd made my own fortune - but gave strict instructions that Annie be taken care of. She was. All of her parents' and grandparents' estates were placed in trust for her.
Annie moved in permanently with me lives with me, and we worked on recovering from the tragedy together. Annie made a several good friends from school and the neighborhood over the years, which is good since she was never been one to warm up to people very quickly. Probably her best friend is Amy, whose parents Scott and Tammy live a couple of blocks from us. Annie usually stays with them when I have to travel.
I think she liked staying there because Scott is a musician. Well, he's actually the Branch Manager for one of the banks here, but he plays with a Jazz Band on the weekends, so I know Annie liked being around them at least partly because of the music. Annie's music was her retreat - even a therapy - after the tragedy. I paid for her piano and voice lessons and the house was always full of music whenever Annie was around. If she wasn't playing the piano or singing, then she was playing some CD or another. The music seemed to get happier as the years went on. I was grateful for that, and happiest when Annie would call me into the living room to sing to me. "Hey, unks," she'd yell. "Come and listen to this" Always, after she sang to me I'd kiss the top of her head and say "that was beautiful, just like you"
The tradition that Annie and I always celebrate our birthdays together only changed slightly. What had been a party at Mom and Dad Johnson's house became a festive dinner out. I have been telling her since Christmas that I wanted to make her 18th birthday celebration an even more memorable one but she's kept insisting that she's "got it covered" so I finally gave up planning. "OK, little one," I finally said. "You get it your way." Annie smiled and I even think she blushed.
I found out just how much planning she'd done as events unfolded. Annie had told me to dress nice, so I had. That wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Our mutual birthday is such a big occasion for us that we always dress up for it. No, my first clue that this was going to be special was when the limousine driver appeared at the door.
"Annie? Come on," I yelled up the stairs to her. "There's a limousine waiting for us."
"Go ahead and get in, Unks," she answered. "I'll be right there."
I shrugged at the driver and he accompanied me to the car and ushered me inside. Then he stood in front of the door, blocking my view. I didn't see Annie until he opened the limousine door for her. I hardly recognized her; she was so beautifully different from her everyday self. Her long blonde hair was done up, with only wispy curls framing her delicate face. Her black, spaghetti-strap dress, the little string of pearls, the dark hose and high heels made her look both elegant and sexy. It was hard to believe that she was only 18, let alone that she was the same little girl I had met on her first birthday. It seemed like so little time had passed since then. How could it be possible?
Annie smiled at me and did a little model's turn before she got in the car so I could take in her petite 5' 1" frame. "You like?" she asked.
"Very striking" I said. "Where are you taking me?"
"You'll see," she assured me. "You'll see."
Dinner was at an intimate and very fancy eatery in Old Town Alexandria. Annie had set up everything, including the menu. The chef had even come out to greet us and wish us both a happy birthday. I was impressed at Annie's planning so far. I could see people craning their necks and trying to figure out who this happy couple could be. I couldn't help but smile. Over dinner we talked about almost everything. Our day-to-day lives, Annie's school, her college plans and even our past. There were a lot of good times and we learned that it was right to remember them, even if a terrible sadness had ended those days too soon.
"You don't remember the first of these birthday parties, do you?" I asked her. "How you crawled up in my lap and fell asleep with your 'wabby'? How amazed everyone was that you liked me the day I met you?"
"I loved you, Unks," she corrected. "I loved you then, and will love you always." I looked in her eyes. They were full of love, bright with the beginnings of tears but still smiling. I wasn't really surprised to hear her tell me she loved me. After all, we've been telling each other 'I love you' since she could talk. This time though, the look in her eyes was telling me something. Something that suddenly made me feel uncomfortable for some reason.
"Love you more," I joked. It was part of an old routine of ours. Usually it just made her giggle, but tonight she recoiled as if I'd slapped her. I really thought she was going to cry.
"Oh, Unks," she groaned. "Talk about spoiling the mood..."
I didn't understand that response at all, but I didn't push the issue. I think part of me wasn't ready for what it thought this was all leading up to. I moved to change the subject.
"Sorry, sweetie." ... ummm ... so is dinner all you had planned tonight?"
.... There is more of this story ...