“Happy birthday, Nancy! Hope you are celebrating with a nice, long run and a great meal with your family,” wrote my childhood friend Juliet last Thursday.
I thought about her kind and thoughtful sentiments – particularly meaningful because it reflected how someone who has known me for forty years would know exactly how I would choose to spend my birthday – as I powerwalked up and down the hallways of a Hampton Inn 80 miles from my home about an hour before my birthday drew to a close.
I needed just a few more steps to make my Fitbit quota for the day, and I wasn’t going to let the fact that my birthday involved a pre-dawn run in a drenching rainstorm, a frazzled afternoon of picking up the kids, packing our clothes for an overnight, and driving for ninety minutes at rush hour to attend a wake stop me. It was only 10:45 p.m., I consoled myself. Getting those last 1,500 steps shouldn’t be any problem.
I did earn the steps, and I did have a happy birthday, despite the circumstances. Juliet’s wishes identified just what I might have liked for my birthday – a long run and a great meal with my family – but the reality was that my husband’s grandmother had died earlier in the week and her wake fell on my birthday. So I was far from home, powerwalking in a hotel, hoping my suit would stay wrinkle-free in the cramped hotel closet for the funeral services the next day.
While I didn’t get the usual luxuries that accompany my birthday – fun, attention, gifts and cards to open, delicious food that I don’t have to prepare myself – there had been some unexpected bonuses. At the wake earlier that evening, I’d seen just about every living member of Rick’s extended family – and he comes from a very big family – as well as several close friends of my in-laws. And as the day drew to a close, I was snuggled in a quiet dark hotel room with my husband and both my children quietly breathing in their sleep. Sorry as I was about the occasion of Rick’s grandmother’s passing, it felt comforting to be so close to my family at that moment.
Some birthdays are like that: not what you might have chosen, but meaningful in their own way. On the day I turned seventeen, I took the SATs. I had to get up early and it wasn’t a very interesting morning, but I did get to sit at a table with five of my best friends. One year in my early twenties, before I was married, I remember spending a birthday evening alone in my studio apartment opening the gifts my family members had sent me, enjoying the solitude. And on my birthday the year my first child turned one, I remember that he came down with an ear infection. It was a Saturday, and Rick and I spent the morning driving around, from the office of the covering pediatrician to the drugstore for antibiotics to home. Again, not the birthday I would have chosen, but I was with my family and that felt good.
Any birthday is cause to celebrate, really. I have so much to be happy about, whether it’s my birthday or any other day: a healthy and joyful family, wonderful friends, interesting work, a comfortable house in a community we love. It doesn’t matter whether my birthday is spent on a tropical island or at an anonymous hotel in an office park. And it doesn’t even matter whether I get a long run and a delicious meal with my family. Happy birthdays come in all sizes, I’ve learned.