By the time you read this, it won’t be my birthday anymore. Thankfully. But it is right now, and birthdays don’t get easier as you get older.
I’m not talking about mortality, although that is certainly a piece of it. I am five years older than my father was when he died. And I’m not talking about wrinkles and sore joints, although there are mornings when I wake up and ask myself what hurts before even thinking about what I have to do that day.
No, it is the sense of loss that makes birthdays harder as you get older, or at least it is for me.
I remember that my mother used to always call me every year on my birthday around the time of her labor pains. Each year, as if I couldn’t remember from one year to the next, she would recount for me the circumstances of my birth — the big snowstorm, the substitute obstetrician, my grandfather’s disappointment that I wasn’t a boy. It has been four years since I got such a call.
I remember, even after my parents divorced and my father had married a woman who resented everything about me, that my father always found a way to take me to lunch on my birthday. Just the two of us. Our last lunch was on December 16, 1976 — a very long time ago.
But the truth is that even when I was younger, even when my parents were still alive, birthdays were always hard days for me. I would be so excited and, inevitably, disappointed.
When I had children of my own, I went overboard on their birthdays. We would celebrate for days — Disneyland, ponies, Spider-Man, laser tag, you name it. I never got to have a friend sleep over when I was a kid, so for my daughter, I moved the dining room table into the backyard so there would be room in my little house for all her friends.
I was one of those mothers who always invited everybody in the class so no one would be slighted, as I so often was as a kid. Even so, I fretted. Did my children have a good enough time? Did the other kids? And what about the cake? One year, I went nuts about the cake. I wanted everything to be perfect. In a way, I needed those parties more than my kids did, to wipe away, once and for all, my own painful memories.
But it doesn’t work that way. There is no such thing as perfect. You can’t change the endings of your childhood. The most you can do is leave them in your childhood and move on as an adult.
Most days, that’s what I do or at least try to do. But birthdays catch me. Birthdays overwhelm me with memories, many of them so painful that I have trouble leaving my childhood behind. I fight all day to hold on to the adult me. Writing this column is part of that fight. I tell the little girl still inside me that it will all be OK. I am grateful to be working too hard, when so many are unable to find work at all. I am grateful for the blessings of my children, and for the love of my sister and brother and friends. What more could I ask for?
Only this. What I want — and this is the adult me — is for my family and friends to be healthy and well, to find joy and satisfaction, to be strong and safe. I want what I didn’t have as a child, the gifts you can’t find in a store and can’t wrap but in the end are all that matters.