When I was a child, I was horrified by my father’s insistence that the family not make a big fuss over his birthday. As a kid, I wanted my birthday announced from the top of every mountain. I wanted banners in the streets. I wanted to wear a crown or Miss-America-type sash alerting all who encountered me that this day was the day of my birth. I wanted everyone to take notice and treat me with extra kindness. A citywide parade would have been fine by me.
When I was a kid, any misfortune suffered on my birthday was amplified by its contrast to the “happy” state I was trying to maintain. Any unkindness launched in my direction hurt me more deeply (even if the assailant was ignorant to the significance of the day). Having a happy birthday meant having nothing bad happen—I should not have to endure even the tiniest discomfort. It was to be a day full of good things—presents, parties, successes, favorite foods, and cake.
When I was a child, birthdays were a big deal. You were extra special on your birthday, and people had to treat you as such. So it perplexed (and worried) me that my father could let his birthday pass with so little pomp or ceremony. Didn’t he want mountains of presents? Didn’t he want everyone to know the significance of this day for him? How could he be satisfied with a simple cake and ice cream after dinner? How could he accept an inaccurate number of candles atop his cake!? Didn’t he want a huge party? I didn’t understand how he could make so little of his big day.
I get it now that I’m an adult. My grownup birthdays don’t hinge on presents and parties. This particular day is no longer a vehicle for getting the things I want. I don’t want things anymore—at least not the way I did as a kid. I have all the things I need. If I want anything now, it isn’t something that will fit in a box. I want to accomplish things, travel to see things, and experience things. I want to enjoy the relationships that are like gifts to me and cut the tether to those relationships that unnecessarily weigh me down. Gone are my days of wanting a new frilly-twirly dress or Barbie doll.
I no longer expect my birthday to be perfect or free of discomforts. Even on my birthday there is work to be done. The dishes in the sink still need to be washed. The cats still need to be fed and refuse to clean their own litter box. On this particular birthday I’m sick. As a child I would have considered being ill on my birthday nothing less than a punishment from God. I would have worried that He had thus afflicted me because I’d offended Him in some way. Now, I’m just trying to decide whether working out is a gift I should give myself, or an unnecessary chore, on my birthday.
Ever since I left my twenties behind, birthdays have felt less momentous. Some days I can’t remember how old I am—I have to do the math. Milestones don’t make me feel closer to being grown up any more. I know I’m grown; I have bills to pay. The amount of anticipation I felt approaching 10 (double digits), 13 (teenager), 18 (legal), and 21 (more legal) doesn’t overtake me anymore. I used to count down the days to my birthday. I used to measure my age in years and fractions. Now each year just feels like a mile marker in an ambiguous marathon I’m walking instead of running. I’m happy to have lived another year (walked another mile), but I worry about my pace. Not that I think life is a race. I see the value in the journey and the incremental destinations. But there’s what I’ve accomplished, and then there’s what I would like to have accomplished by now. And every year (especially every birthday) the disparity between those two (the reality and the dream) grows more prominent. Every year I find myself weighing who and what I was hoping to be against who and what I’ve actually become.
When I was a child, I didn’t evaluate my accomplishments to date; I wondered what I was getting. I wanted my birthdays to be perfect. They were days on which I expected only good things to happen to me. Now that I’m an adult, it’s mostly just another day, and I’m fine with that. Some people I love will call, text, or e-mail to wish me well. And that will be lovely. I’ll even get one or two physical cards through the mail (so far one from my godmother in England).
Today is my birthday and I am sick. My throat is sore and dry. I cough for no good reason. My lungs continue to produce a colorful array of phlegm and mucous—the unwanted gift that keeps on giving. I have work and chores waiting for me. But I’m not unhappy. I like my life, and I’m happy to have lived another year of it. Bad things can and will happen on my birthday. I’m okay with that. The fact that I’m still here, alive, loved, and healthy (aside from this current cold or other manner of pernicious, long-lasting infection) is gift enough.
My father enjoyed modest birthday celebrations, and I understand that now. I don’t need fuss or fanfare. I’m an introvert—I don’t want a parade or a cheering crowd. I’m content to enjoy a good meal in good company and cap it off with something milk-chocolaty. It’s just an ordinary day, really, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Just because my grownup birthdays aren’t spectacles of celebration, doesn’t mean they aren’t very happy .