Parties: Birthday, Pity, and Otherwise

I talked to a friend this morning about her simple birthday plans, and it brought to mind my own birthday a couple of months ago.

That day began with very simple celebration plans, and turned into not what we planned at all. The interruption in our day afforded me lots of thinking time — about what a birthday means to me and what makes a “good” birthday.

Some of you may know I lost a very special grandmother on my birthday eight years back. She was indescribably wonderful and my heart broke many times along the way as she declined rapidly out of this life.

It broke first when we learned the symptoms she was battling were attributed to cancer returning to her body after a first occurrence years prior. It broke again in the car outside the nursing home the day I left her bedside to journey back to my own home, knowing I would never see her again. It broke again in the hallway at work, where I took the birthday call my mom helped orchestrate. The one where my tired grandma told me she didn’t know what to say and we finally said goodbye. And it broke in the darkness of my bedroom as I sat on the floor with the phone and heard she had passed late that night.

Mixed in with the sadness of losing someone so dear on my special day was the bittersweet realization the day was now ours to share and exponentially more meaningful — my birthday now the sweet moment Jesus welcomed her to heaven.

We had always shared my birthday anyhow. Ironically, she was the type of grandparent who truly loved to celebrate her grandchildren’s birthdays. As a gifted cake decorator, she let each of us dream up the perfect birthday cake and then delivered it for our big day. And she always made arrangements to take us out for a special meal and shopping trip.

Those first few years made for a hard series of birthdays. Each year, my husband took me to breakfast for dinner at the same chain where she and I used to meet. The days were half happy, half melancholy, and mostly quiet. Lots of tears but also lots of French toast.

But as the years have eased by, my birthday has come to mean so much more. It isn’t about the day she died. And disappointingly, it isn’t about me as some supremely special being. It is about fullness, and life, and gratefulness.

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I am alive. My family is here with me. I have a husband I don’t deserve and daughters more precious than I could have imagined. My wonderful parents and in-laws are well and active in our lives. I have dear sisters and brothers, and nieces and nephews I love as my own. I have family I am so very lucky to be able to call friends. And I have friends I am so very grateful have become part of my family. I have a home to care for, sunsets to watch, and meaningful things to do with my time. And I have a God that loves me relentlessly, just as I am.

I have never been one to require a big birthday celebration or a full day (or week!) of my favorite activities. I don’t even usually need much in the way of presents. (But to be clear, I do quite like them so don’t let that stop you.)

I do have two general requirements: (1) my family remembers my birthday, and (2) we do something out of the ordinary to celebrate. Only one of those requirements has ever been overlooked and he is still really, very, truly sorry he remembered late in the evening after a full day of me looking at him angrily through narrowed eyes. It honestly wasn’t his fault.

There have been other birthdays, though, where I’ve wished the day had been more perfect. Maybe more celebratory. Maybe required just a little less work from me. Maybe all the friends I’ve ever had (like, ever!) wished me a happy birthday. Maybe everyone had gotten along swimmingly all the birthday long and my girls were well-behaved and thoughtful beyond their years. Maybe my husband was doting and devoted an entire day to me and my favorite (long, long list of) things.

Those kind of birthday wishes lead to discontentment. And crabby people. Mostly me.

We get so caught up hoping others remember us on our birthdays, but do we stop to remember them ourselves? To be thankful we are alive to celebrate and have people we love around us. To decide to spend them in a way that matters to us, rather than hoping others surprise us with exactly what we want (but don’t want to have to say).

So when my most recent birthday morning was festively spent in the urgent care waiting room while medical staff patched up my husband after a deck construction incident, and the rest of his day had to be spent working on said deck to make up for lost time, I realized the gift of a day spent doing work that is valuable to me. I enjoyed sweet hugs and downtime with my girls watching the live-action Cinderella movie (my choice, again). I was able to help my husband on his deck project and care for him and our home. I talked to my parents and one sister on the phone, and was able to text with my other sister who was heading up into the mountains on a camping adventure. I had a fun dinner out and shave ice (no candle).

Each time disappointment may have crept in and I began to pen invitations to my pity party, I reminded myself that a birthday is an occasion to take stock of my blessings. Mostly, it is a chance to reaffirm that as long as I am able to turn the calendar pages, I get to choose the type of woman I am and how I will invest the fleeting minutes of my life.

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