Birthdays are the epitomy of strange days, in their way. When you are a kid, they are the one day guaranteed to be filled with wonder and delight and me-only attention. Unless you are a kid in a large blended family, and mostly your birthday gets remembered at the last minute, say at dinner when your parents are already out at another party that doesn’t include children, much less you, and your nanny serves a Pepperidge Farm cake fresh out of the freezer (“See, your favorite–coconut!”).
I see birthday drama–both happy and sad–play out every day at lunch and every night at dinner in my restaurant. Most times, the celebrants bask in the attention they are receiving from friends or loved ones. Sometimes, they are clearly unhappy, even sullen, for reasons that only they know, and no single candle adorning a dessert is going to make it any better.
My worst birthday was my 30th (you know, just a few years ago ;)). I was legal guardian of my then 16-year-old half-sister. I had a cute but needy toddler (sorry RG Son), and one more (the lovely RG Daughter, but I didn’t know that then) on the way. I was sick to my stomach, and just plain sick and tired of it all. All I wanted, CRAVED, was a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake. Mr. Restaurant Gal had taken me at my word to “not make a fuss” and done nothing about a cake. My half-sister was being her usual pain-in-the-ass-16-year-old self, forgetting everything beyond her high school soap opera’s cast of characters, including my 30th birthday.
“Want to go to Baskin-Robbins?” I asked brightly, like a parent does, even though I was not her parent, to cajole a kid with whom they have totally and completely lost control and any meaningful contact. “I want to buy myself a birthday cake!”
My 16-year-old half sister, whom I was raising because my mother and step-father could not, agreed an ice cream cake might be a good thing, and she deigned to accompany me. When we arrived at said Baskin-Robbins, my quasi daughter-like 16-year-old made a bee-line for the ice cream cake freezer.
“Oooooooh! I want that!” she said pointing to a mint chocolate chip ice cream pie.
I didn’t want that. I wanted what I wanted–an ice-cream cake, not pie–because it was MY birthday.
“Um, how about that one?” I asked, pointing to the chocolate chip ice cream/chocloate cake combo, as if it were her birthday, the ungrateful urchin, now that I honestly think back on it.
“NO!” she exclaimed, so loud for all to hear. “I hate cakes. I want THAT pie.”
I considered this for a few moments. My birthday. My 30th birthday. My husband uninvolved because he took me too literally. My spoiled brat half sister, whom I willingly had under my watch, but whom I now wanted to permanently turn back to my step-father, even though I knew he probably didn’t care that much about either of us on this day.
I looked at the cake. Then I looked at the pie.
I bought the pie.
Because even then, even though this half sister was not my kid, I got it about the parental sacrifice thing, because I had a toddler I loved unconditionally and I had one more on the way, with whom I had to share this unconditional love in seven short months.
And when we got home, everyone enjoyed the pie. Except me. I couldn’t eat a bite. But no one ever knew why. Even now.
No, today is not my birthday. That day comes along in a few weeks. No, today is my cousin’s birthday, which I always forget. It is also that of a once-close friend, whom I wish all the happiness in the world, but with whom I no longer share the closeness to tell her so.
I wish the happiest birthdays to those for whom birthdays bring crushing pain. Because, before their day is over, those from whom they would most like to hear simply stay silent, and best wishes from friends never, ever fill that void.
Happy birthday, to all of us.