Birthday Presence

Over the years I’ve learned most people treat their birthdays in two different ways: There are those who focus on their birth, and those who focus on their death.

For many, a birthday is a celebration of life, a day when everyone stops to acknowledge the moment in time when the world was changed by their entrance into it. They keep the heart of a young birthday boy or girl, getting giddy over presents and a cake and making a wish before blowing out the candles. For the most part, they think backward instead of forward. They revel in the sweet memories of past birthdays and personal milestones made in the previous year.

Admittedly, some of these people — the ones who think their birthday is on par with a national holiday — can be annoying. They think the day is solely dedicated to them, a day on which they get to boss people around and choose the menu of every meal and generally lie on the couch while others fan them because it’s “their day.”

But these people are far less annoying than the ones in the other birthday camp — the ones who focus not backward but forward. They see only the fleetingness of life, and impending death. They focus on how their birthday signifies one more year of their life being over. Done. They focus on being older. Over the hill. Not as good/young/thin/fast/wrinkle-free as they once were. Their birthday makes them think about where and who they thought they’d be “by now.” It’s a cruel reminder that they are, to quote Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Another day older and deeper in debt.”

These folks are a major bummer. They often don’t want anyone else to acknowledge their birthday either. “I don’t want anything,” they say, “it’s just another day,” and you’re never sure if they really mean it.

I’ve always been a member of the “look backward” birthday club, getting excited each year for a day of pampering and favorite meals and hello!, chocolate cake. This giddiness never waned, even though the first few years Chris and I were together there was a running joke between us that my birthdays were cursed. For one reason or another it always rained on my parade, the day always seeming to be botched by one of us being sick or held up at work or too strapped to go out to dinner.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of fantastic birthdays too. And through it all — the great, the miserable, the simply forgettable — I kept looking forward to them, year after year.

But as this birthday approached, I dipped my toe in the other side. The “I don’t want anything, it’s just another day” side. I know part of my nonchalance was because we don’t have the budget, the free time or the babysitting services necessary for any sort of extravagance. And the fact that 37 is creeping toward middle age probably had something to do with it. But more than anything, the reason for my birthday dread was because I’m a mom. Before I had kids I never focused much on my own mortality, but now the thought of not seeing every single moment of my kids’ lives terrifies me. I need for us all to live forever, it’s as simple as that. And another birthday for me was a reminder that there is no way to stop those sands from slipping through the hourglass.

So the day began with a mix of my newly adopted birthday mope and my almost-forgotten birthday curse. Both boys were starting to show signs of being sick, as was I. The last thing I’d done the night before was to clean things up after Kostyn puked in his bed. The first thing I did the morning of my birthday was to let the dog outside -- and then use paper towels to pull the crap from her butt that was frozen there when she came back in.

Was this the start of (I have to say it....) a shitty birthday, I wondered?

Chris really wanted me to indulge. He wanted me to go on a little shopping spree to have some time to myself, which I rarely get. So I headed to the mall, a place that after having kids I had come to daydream about — wandering through the stores stroller-free, able to pick through racks and sip coffee and take my time. And I did just that, browsing but not buying (well, except for that Blizzard).

But none of the clothes seemed to suit me, all either too young or too old for where I am in my life right now. And there were strollers everywhere. I tried to force myself not to enter Gymboree or The Children’s Place. I’d forgotten my cell phone, which I also use as a watch, and the absence of it in my pocket dug into my brain like a sliver. What if they want to reach me? What if one of the boys gets sicker and Chris needs me to come home? What time is it???

Slowly, something began to click while I wandered around in a fruitless search for something I thought I wanted. I was spending the day without my kids because that’s what I daydream about being able to do once in awhile. But I’d been dreading my birthday in part because I fear there could be a day when we won’t be together at all.

Suddenly I didn’t want to be fiddling around in the past, trying on clothes that no longer suited me and pretending to be someone I haven’t been in almost three years. And I certainly didn’t want to be brooding about the future, skipping all the best parts of today to focus on what’s to come.

What I wanted for my birthday was to celebrate February 13th for what it is — just one ordinary, beautiful day of life. And that’s when my birthday became about something else entirely -- not about looking back and not about looking forward, but about pausing to soak in this very second in my life, even if it involves wiping runny noses and dirty bottoms (even the dog’s!).

I raced home and was greeted with this

and this

and this

and I knew I’d be quite happy in this birthday camp for years to come. I plan to spend each birthday with the remote set not to “rewind” or “fast-forward” but “super-slow-mo,” when I can dedicate one beautiful day to memorizing where I am in life’s journey at that moment.

When I stared at the burning candles that night on a made-from-scratch chocolate cake my husband baked, the only wishes I could think of came out like prayers for the loved ones staring back at me with smiles.

I think that kind of contentment is the best birthday present anyone can get.


Lis said...

Glad you had a wonderful birthday. What precious memories.

Lyn said...

Oh Robyn. I think I am going to start charging you to replenish my kleenex supply. You always write in a way that wrings my heart out and makes me proud to be your friend. If even one more person in this crazy world committed to your "here and now" birthday technique, we'd all be a little bit better for it. Thanks for putting your heart on your sleeve.

Robyn said...

Thanks Lyn! I often feel like a giant dork sharing my Hallmark heart with everyone, so the feedback is really, really nice to hear.

Check is in the mail for those tissues.... ;)