The night of my birthday, the driver who returns me and the dear friend I’ve had dinner with downtown to our respective homes makes this observation:
He tells me, as we cut through the black, rain-soaked night and I break our silence to ask if his shift is almost up, he is glad to have met us. As he watched us making our way from the restaurant to his car, he couldn’t help noticing the warmth of our smiles as we leaned into each other to cross the street. There was something so pure about our laughter, he says, he felt as if the opportunity to drive us home were God’s blessing after a challenging day.
I beam from the back seat as I thank him, thinking as he drops me off with a hearty “Happy Birthday” there couldn’t have been a better, if surprising, way to end an already-perfect day.
I love birthdays, always have, but this year, facing the day without my partner of the last five years, I admit I was anxious. I didn’t want to wonder if he’d send a card or call, to expect even a text when in the three months since we’d ended our relationship, we’ve gone from exchanging the occasional comfortingly familiar text to cutting all communication — a request I made to stave off the rush of joy and tug of sorrow that would inevitably follow each seemingly harmless interaction.
But surely, on my birthday, he’ll make an exception, I think, push past that boundary even at the risk of aching hearts and stirred-up longings to cradle me in a brief and tender gladness. Yet I brace for an equally expected absence, for a silence I imagine will snake its disappointment into my day, despite all I’ve planned to ensure a surfeit of happy activity.
I don’t hear from him.
But as I look back on my day after I get home that night, I can honestly say it was one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had. From the moment I awake to singing voicemails, and texts and phone calls from friends and family, I feel enveloped in love and appreciation. And that sense of celebration only deepens as the hours wear on.
It’s hard to believe dread was a threatening menace the day before when each moment wings from joy to joy.
I took a page from a good friend’s book, who a few years ago inspired me by crafting her dream birthday. Rather than relying on her husband or other loved ones to make it all she hoped it would be, she orchestrated a celebration that fed her every whim, from the morning coffee she picked up on her way to delight in the tulips at Longwood Gardens to the movie she treated herself to and the Dansko outlet she visited to find a beautiful pair of clogs. By the time her husband took her out to dinner, it was the precious topper on a richly satisfying day.
So while my ex is among the thoughts flitting through my mind the morning of my birthday, I make a conscious choice to be grateful for the fullness of my life. Even as I reflect on the year past, and all its challenges, I know they brought me to the woman I am in that moment, and I am proud of who she is and who she is becoming.
I’ve taken the day off and my mom, who celebrated her birthday the week before, has, as well. On the schedule are massages for both of us and then lunch with her best friend at a sushi restaurant I haven’t been to in years but loved the first time I ate there. The three of us have long made a tradition of celebrating each other’s birthdays together, but we fell off schedule last year and are thrilled to finally revive our club. My mom and I browse through some of our favorite stores after lunch and stop for lattes at a local coffee shop before driving to her house, where my brother and his family pop by to wish me happy birthday and my niece presents me with the most fabulous pair of toe socks I’ve ever owned. (Yes, I have an obsession.)
By the time I meet my friend for dinner in the city, at a restaurant I’ve always wanted to try, I feel utterly spoiled and lucky. For three hours, we laugh and catch each other up on our lives, while joking with our attentive waiter who makes such a fun and outrageous show of serving us, I proclaim he deserves an award.
I could have floated home, and in some ways I do with our driver capturing the essence of what the day has been about: simple, joyful connection reminding me I matter.
With so much to savor, the sad yearning I know is still there seems to have thinned and pulled back its teeth. Even when I go to the mailbox, guarding an irrepressible hope, I find not a card from him, but a package from the very friend who’s taught me the importance of celebrating ourselves. Knowing she’d be out of town on my birthday, she arranged for it to arrive on the occasion itself.
God, I think, has gifted me with an extraordinary turn around the sun. Amid all the festivity, I find a CD my ex made me, his “Happy, Funky Mix” that is tucked into a case I open looking for something else. I can’t help smiling as I decide to put in on.
He is there, after all, not a melancholy weight, but a bright song bursting through the atmosphere of gratitude. And I am dancing with the past and the present, furrowing all their sweetness into the freedom he’s helped me to seek.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times