My mother always made me feel special on my birthday. Every year she picked out the perfect Barbie doll, the best stuffed animal, the prettiest bracelet. When I look back on my birthdays as a kid, it’s not so much a particular gift or image that I remember most, it’s a feeling, how the people I love, especially my mom, made me feel important.
For years, my mom hung a Happy Birthday sign above the sink in our kitchen, chunky letters in every color of the rainbow strung together. It was the first thing I’d see when I came downstairs from my bedroom. As I stood sleepy-eyed in my pajamas, she’d sing “Happy Birthday” in a country-western twang with such passion – and volume – even though she doesn’t have the best singing voice. She still calls my sisters and me on every birthday and sings to us. I always let her call go to voicemail because I like to play the message over and over; it makes me smile.
What also made my birthdays so special every year as a kid was being able to design my own birthday cake. We went to a bakery called Mr. Baker, where your senses were greeted with the scent of vanilla icing whenever you stepped through the door. I loved the ritual of going with my mom to pick up my birthday cake and riding home with it sealed in a traditional white cake box. The anticipation of waiting to eat it drove me crazy. At age 36, I have not outgrown that and probably never will.
I took my birthday cake seriously as a kid – and still do. I had obsessions with Snoopy and Garfield when I was a child, so naturally they ended up on a lot of my cakes during my early childhood. I can still picture my double-layer cake with Garfield drawn on the top of it. It was my fifth or sixth birthday, and my whole family was gathered in the dining room, the lights dim and golden. My mom’s face glowed in birthday candlelight as she walked toward me with my Garfield cake, and everyone started to sing “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears before I could blow out the candles. I ran to my room and threw myself down on the bed, burying my face in my pillow. My mom scooped me up, and I cried into her chest unable to explain the tears.
Now, as an adult, I know the reason. It wasn’t just that my mom ordered me the perfect Garfield cake; it was that everyone I loved was gathered in the same room to celebrate me, my life. That birthday was the first time that I recognized what it means to be truly loved and cared about.
I carried that same feeling with me throughout the day on Wednesday as I celebrated my 36th birthday. All day I felt surrounded by so much love from the moment I first opened my eyes and saw my husband smiling back at me. Sweet text messages and phone calls trickled in throughout the day, each birthday wish touching my heart. After the tough couple of months I’ve been going through, it felt good to truly feel joyful for one day.
My husband can’t cook, but he’s great at ordering takeout. When I walked into our kitchen on the morning of my birthday, he had set a table for two with a Chick-fil-A biscuit and golden hash browns waiting for me — my twice a year guilty pleasure. He went into work a little later that morning so we could eat breakfast together. It was a simple gesture, but it felt grand to me.
Later that afternoon, two of my dear friends treated me to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants. When I arrived, they were seated in a booth with a small flower pot of yellow Gerbera daisies on the table and the biggest balloon I had ever seen attached to it with spirals of multicolored ribbon. I shrieked with glee when I saw it — and teared up a little, too. Those little touches sure made this birthday girl feel special. I left our lunch that day with my heart full — and my face sore from laughing so much. Good friends always know what our hearts need.
Afterwards, I went for a stroll in the woods with my dog Molly, and as I walked among the towering pines and the wisteria in bloom, I paused and looked up, taking it all in, this vast and beautiful world. My eyes, my senses, my heart — they felt wide open. In the middle of the woods, this place that I cherish, my daily haven, I felt a deep connection to the universe. Among the rubble of winter’s fallen trees and bare branches, new life was unfurling all around me. Birds chirped. Four monarch butterflies danced in a figure eight near me. Wisteria’s delicate lavender flowers clung to their vine. I thought about these last two months and all the grief that has consumed me, and I realized even in the midst of sorrow there are gifts. You just have to open your eyes, and your heart to see them.
When I got home, there was a card waiting from me from my best friend Addison, who I share this blog with. The cover of the card pictures a cluster of cars, traveling in different directions, and a young girl on a bike looking over her shoulder while pedaling away from them. “I like to think that this is you pedaling even further past the grief that began this year,” she wrote. “You’re looking back a wee bit but pedaling forward to your next adventure.”
I love that analogy. It’s always a comfort when those we love can see a future beyond our grief. Reading Addison’s words gave me hope. Yes, I’m still glancing back at the past as I weather this season of change, but deep in my heart I believe the best is yet to come. Birthdays are a perfect way to mark a new beginning.
That night my oldest sister, brother-in-law and two nephews sang “Happy Birthday” to me via FaceTime – a virtual birthday party. Hearing my sweet nephews’ voices in the chorus of adults made me laugh as they sang with such fervor. This time there weren’t any tears, just laughter and gratitude. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and made a wish. I wished for joy, but after I blew out the candles, and opened my eyes, I realized I already have it.