In the decades leading up to The Birthday, there are other birthdays. One at a campground in New Zealand — a gift of possum-fur nipple warmers that I lose before getting a chance to enjoy them. A few in South Africa, one in Kuwait, one possibly in Sri Lanka, although the dates are blurred.
Otherwise they are all colder birthdays, northern birthdays. Wintery birthdays that cling to the coattails of December when the night drops a lid on the afternoon’s mid-sentence and the snow settles itself down, sorry and resolute, like a big man after a meal. Most of the old birthdays are chapped-cheeked and white-fingered, knuckles tunnelling into armpits for warmth, breath a veil in the air. There are at least three surprise parties, many restaurants, several mountain cabins, but more often they are living rooms with pen-and-paper party games and pop songs so old and beloved they can be hollered by heart. None of the birthdays, in their sameness, can be strung up in their proper order without consulting old journals, photo albums, or social media. To my surprise, this has ceased to matter.
In the years leading up to The Birthday comes a virus so unknowable, so stealthy, it first slows the days to a trickle. I take notice of hours as I haven’t since childhood, marveling that time can do this, can slow to a walk. Then, when we’re shuttered for a second full year, time opens its spigot so that forty-nine gushes past and is all but lost, except for the draft a book, which is where I stored all my hopes for safekeeping.
In the months leading up to The Birthday there are the big birthdays of so many others I love but don’t see or hold. Half-centennial celebrations shut away in homes, obeying or flouting pandemic restrictions, but saving on caterers and bucket-list holidays. We clink our cocktails at the laptop cameras we’ve come to despise and if we have the chance to hug we do so woodenly, holding our breath, all casual choreography forgotten. Fifty’s starkest lesson: that friendships are an act of undressing, layer upon layer, so that you don’t notice the moment you’re naked and can’t know if the other has stripped as much away. Until a death.
Or as luck would have it, a pandemic.
In the days leading up to The Birthday, I sleep poorly. I feel the pointy burrow of my hipbones into the mattress and the way my eyeballs grow chilled under my eyelids and I worry what both of these portend. Into the unsleeping hours creep the outlines of names forgotten, my biggest loves, inky regrets — the lost nipple warmers among them. Still awake but close to the billowing edges of dream, I leaf through the places, people, or moments I’d return to if I could and wonder whether I ever properly catalogued them at the time, by pen or in photographs, in case they are lost to me later. If I let it, the prospect of forgetting what I know I’ve lived or known can push panicked through me, smothering the breath from my lungs.
Ridiculous, all this reckoning. The Birthday is just a number, and not even a prime one. Everything I long for I already have or might still attain, or the effort of trying will be its own reward. The people who matter, who couldn’t assemble in party shoes, I will see and hold them again.
On the morning of my birthday, I will try to sleep late but won’t. This, too, can be counted among my accomplishments or failures: that I am a lifelong early riser. Only once in my memories was I still in bed when my mother called me at the exact time of my birth, as she did every year, to say what she claims she did the moment I was first placed in her arms: That’s my girl. Today the phone will not ring at 8:20, but I will still hear her voice.
But first I will lie awake and hear something else, a squelching tread, an approach. Outside? No. The muffling snow is too thick, too soft for sound. In the room?! No. I pluck out my earplugs and the footfall stops because it is only my heart, its steady stride. Onwards. My next birthday, or the next, I may wake up somewhere salty and sunbaked. I may spend a day surrounded by the crush of friends and family. Or not. The important part, of course, is to get to wake up at all.
Today, upon waking, I will reach a hand for the warm fur of the dog, who takes more than his fair share of my foot-space, and another for the ridgeline of the man I love, who excels both at sleeping late and rising early. Why, this is a day like any other, isn’t it? Lucky me. Lucky me.
Thanks to all the distant friends who made me feel special on the big day and every other, and AB for the nudge to try and put that in words.