Discover more from The Remix
Belated Birthday Beatitudes
I am not a big birthday person. I remember childhood parties at home, Chuck E Cheese, McDonalds, Chuck E Cheese, Pizza Hut, Chuck E Cheese again, and cookouts at our house with oxygen blown balloons, plastic tablecloths, grocery store cake, cone shaped paper hats and cheap party favors and blow horns that would last about as long as the “happy birthday” song. My birthday was six days after my grandmother’s, so as I got older I had birthday parties by proxy when my extended family would gather to celebrate my grandmother—and by extension “all the September babies.” As a child, parties were opportunities for positive attention—which is why I probably relished in the revelry and self-indulgence. Back then I was even excited about my sister’s birthday, which meant a consolation gift for the non-birthday girl (usually a coloring book and crayons) and leftover cake for days.
In my teen years, I would just as soon disappear as be the center of attention. By then, birthdays were celebrated by going to dinner at a restaurant with cloth napkins, and being gifted birthday cards laced with dollar bills, usually in the amount of my new age. Low self-esteem and unpopularity led me to crave intentional isolation on my birth date for years, with one exception. When I turned 16, having convinced myself my “friends at school” were my “friends in real life” I begged my mother for a party for the first time in 8 years. She agreed and gathered the help of siblings and family members to prepare our yard for extra cars, card games and a family-reunion styled cookout. My actual family, those who always attended our somewhat annual September birthday gathering, waited patiently for the arrival of my imaginary friends—who never came. To my relief, my faithful, fair-weather friends from church were there, sitting with me and pretending it was normal to have fifty unclaimed hotdogs left arranged on the table.
After that there were the times my birthday was overlooked or forgotten, mostly by men who either pretended or actually didn’t remember the day, despite my not-so-subtle reminders. Birthday greetings from lovers were almost always absent or belated—and gifts, when given, were afterthoughts, sagging balloons, half-dead flowers, or cards with no money or signature—the intimacy of handwriting was conspicuously missing, evading evidence of who the card was actually from.
Then, when I turned 21, my college friends threw a party to celebrate—replete with PJs (party drink) and vodka shots. Only a handful of people who came to the party knew who I was or gave a damn about my birthday. I remember being shocked that so many people showed up to celebrate with me, before realizing it was the alcohol and vodka infused fruit that brought all the boys to the yard, not me. There were no cards or gifts, just red cups and intoxicated tears. I was drunk for days.
Since then, as an introvert, I like to sink into quiet contemplation on my birthday. In an ideal world I have the day off, sleep in, eat cake and carve out time for stillness, self-care and goal setting. I often spend the day reflecting on the last year and dreaming about the next year. Sometimes my family visits. Sometimes my friends are here. Sometimes I get flowers, cards (with signatures, sentiments and more money than years I have been born), deliveries and watch for messages and memories to pop up in social media news feeds.
Four years ago, when I turned forty, I spent my birthday hosting homegirls at my house while my family gathered, as they had so many times over the years, to celebrate my grandmother’s 86th birthday. My twin Virgo, we were not at all alike. Our life circumstances forced (and/or allowed) us to live vastly different lives. I was a planner, a dreamer. She was a fixer, a fighter. We both had good discernment and sensitivity to bullshit, but she relished in the attention of birthdays while I often shied away. She would give instructions about her expectations for gatherings, open cards without reading them, shaking the cardboard and envelope in search of foldable bills she would later stash in her bra.
Four years ago, my grandmother was not lucid enough to realize she was being celebrated. Arthritis kept her from being able to close her fingers or shake money from the birthday cards she would never read, or close them in clothes pins on the money tree. She didn’t pay attention to who was there or notice who was missing. She didn’t know I wasn’t present. Twenty days later she died.
For some reason, this year I have been reflecting on the 39 Septembers I shared my birthday month and a complicated relationship with my mother’s mother. I am wrestling, in life and in therapy, with what it means that I crave affirmation, but attention makes me uncomfortable. I am reckoning with my complicated relationship to celebrating myself and letting myself be celebrated. I am remembering the callousness of men and so-called friends who trained me to lower my expectation(s) of being seen or remembered. I am also collecting cards with signatures, buying myself flowers and gifts with the money lovingly left in said cards, and realizing that it is sometimes a good thing to be surrounded by good company on the day you were born (this year, it meant missing my family’s posthumous celebration of my grandmother’s birthday but attending an event celebrating the life’s work of a dear friend).
Happy birthday to me!