Tuesday, November 9, 2010
I love birthdays. Always have. It doesn't matter whether it's mine, or the special day of someone I love, or a celebration of a character in a movie. Birthdays make me happy.
Childhood birthdays were a complicated mix of anticipation, thrill at being the center of attention and disappointment that the day was never quite enough of something I couldn't quite name. There were visits from grandparents and cakes and memorable gifts. I still have the topaz heart necklace that was my first official piece of jewelry, given the year I turned seven - a year that became one of those that alters the course of a family's life. There were also always the days after the birthday when life returned to a normal that seemed bleaker for having experienced the light and magic of one special day.
The one constant, from my earliest memory until my mom lost her way, was her saying on my birthday, "Ten (or twenty-nine, or forty-five) years ago today, at exactly 3:53 P.M., I was bringing you into the world." Even when I'd left home, even in the years when I couldn't bear to breathe air that had been in her lungs, for one day of every year she reached out to me to declare our connection.
I don't think she ever did that with my brothers. I've not asked them, and now I'll need to, but there are no memories of them sharing similar stories.
As this year's birthday approached, the last one of my fifties, I found myself thinking about why I still get excited. At this point in life, birthdays bring a burning away of illusion and a diminishment of potential. Death, which at twenty seemed impossible, begins to take shape as an inevitable reality, showing itself in new wrinkles and pains and memory losses. Not something normally celebrated.
I miss my mom's calls, even though many times I could hardly wait to get off the phone and back to a life safe from her. The year I entered the decade I'm about to leave, our family was split down the middle, a fracture that meant she (and one brother) didn't get invited to my surprise party. Even then, she called and left a message.
It's only now I realize her tradition was a way I knew she loved me, even when her actions often indicated otherwise. All those years she swore she'd done the best she could, it turns out to be the truth. And although that best wasn't nearly enough for a developing child, it was love.
And it's love that makes me thrilled every year at this time, thrilled at every birthday for anyone besides me. Birthday celebrations are a concentration of all the love that exists for a person in their life at a point in time. Cards, phone calls, Facebook messages, parties, lunches - each person's expression of birthday wishes is a spark in what becomes a brilliant light of love.
Each new year now, that light seems to grow brighter and brighter, even though my expectations for the day have diminished along with my eyesight and flexibility and stamina. In a life that started on a starvation diet of love, with barely enough to sustain a spirit, I feel rich beyond expression to experience such abundant love on my birthdays. An abundance that stays with me from one November 5 to the next.
Last Friday as I was helping my middle brother, Mark, set up his new antique business, he mentioned in the most casual of ways that we'd be having dinner with our other two brothers and their wives. I was excited to get to celebrate my birthday with all my brothers (and I love surprises), but it wasn't until the six of us were seated at the restaurant that I became truly aware of the unfolding miracle.
Five people went out of their way to spend an evening in the company of others that just a short time ago they couldn't share air or space with - to celebrate me. For the second time in a year, Mom's four children sat together in laughter and ease, teasing and taking pictures and sharing food and bits of lives with each other. This time, for the first time, we were joined by the two brave and beautiful women who married brothers whose paths diverged to the point of estrangement for the last decade.
I love birthdays because they are a time, like the brightest summer day, when it's impossible to not know that love exists in unlimited abundance. It's a time when I get close to understanding in a concrete way what God's love means. To be loved - there is no greater gift to receive. A gift from which even more love grows and finds its way back into the world. Light that releases even more light until the darkness is reduced to shadow with no power beyond what light allows.