When I turned seven years old, I invited the two cutest boys in the first grade to my birthday party. It was a ballsy move, but I was a ballsy girl. I was the leader of the Purple Club, a club where every girl in my class who loved purple followed me around the playground, doing whatever I said. I’d touch the third rung on the monkey bars, they’d follow suit. Exciting stuff.
Everyone knew that RJ and Christopher were off limits. They knew this because I’d told them so. I didn’t want an actual boyfriend — I just didn’t want them to have girlfriends, spending their days pining over me and only me. Inviting them to my birthday was my way of staking my claim.
At the birthday party, RJ sang me a special birthday song in front of everyone, waving his hands with a flourish when he was finished. My face was red and hot, but I was pleased. I lay in bed later that evening, replaying that moment over and over again. We moved later that year, but the song became a running joke in my family for years with “cha cha cha!!! *hand wave*” being a private joke of sorts.
When I got older, birthdays got complicated. My dad was abusive, and I was embarrassed to have friends over. They might say something wrong, reveal something about me that I might pay for later. Eventually he went to prison for raping me and my relationship with my mom, for reasons that are too numerous and painful to get into at this time (even counseling was only able to chip away at it), dissolved completely. And birthdays became incredibly painful.
For nearly 20 years, I have associated being strong with being unaffected and unbothered. So when that anxious feeling pops up every year about a week before my birthday…I’ve pushed it down and plastered on a smile. I have kids who love me, a cozy warm home, a great husband, wonderful friends. How ungrateful must I be, to not be satisfied? I have what so many others want.
I won’t be a drama queen. It’s not who I am. Drama queens dwell and stew and strong people push forward. So when my husband asks, I tell him I’d like pizza for dinner, that I want a new pair of shoes, that I’d like to go out for a pedicure. I watch my family look at me anxiously, wanting me to be happy. And I make myself play the part of the grateful, happy woman who isn’t sad and hurting and wishing she had parents. I chew on food that sits funny in my stomach and I wonder what it’s like to have a child who you held as she took her first breaths and then threw away when she grew older and her pain was inconvenient. And I wonder what you tell yourself when she has a birthday every year.
My father-in-law, a gruff, unsentimental man who rides a motorcycle and liberally uses the “F” word, sends gorgeous flowers with chocolates and a balloon, which stuns my husband. My mother-in-law plans me a birthday party at her home, making whatever I’d like for dinner.
I cry thankful tears and feel honored to be so loved. But I also wish that they could be the ones who knew what I always asked for my birthday dinner as a child. I wish it was they who remembered the time that Barbara cried every time she lost one of the party games. I want them to know that my favorite birthday cake of all time was Rainbow Brite.
I want them to remember RJ waving his hands as he sang, “CHA CHA CHA!!”
One thing about getting older is you learn to give yourself a lot more grace. And with that comes the realization that some things are just sad and there is no getting around it. Not having loving, caring parents on your birthday is sad. And it’s okay to allow myself to feel that sadness and grieve through it.
I spent my birthday evening in bed sobbing as my husband listened to me confide in him that my birthday is the one day a year that exposes a giant pit of loneliness that lives in my heart. That I wish I had a home to go to that smelled of my childhood. That I wish someone would laugh and yell, “CHA CHA CHA” as they sang me Happy Birthday — not because I told them to but because they were there and remember how cute RJ’s face looked as he proudly sang my special song.
My husband wasn’t disappointed in me. He didn’t think me ungrateful. And as I closed my eyes on the night of my birthday, eyes swollen and face red and splotchy, he put his arms around me and I felt strangely light. Because it was the first birthday in a very long time that I’ve told the truth.
Mommas. Don’t ever underestimate what the funny traditions mean. The streamers in the doorway — the candle in the donut — the embarrassing birthday song. They may roll their eyes and hide their faces, but you are home. You are the one who saw them take their first breaths, who fed them their first cake, who remembers that they always want the good homemade macaroni and cheese with their birthday dinner.
They would miss it horribly if it was no longer an option.
Happy birthday to me. Cha cha cha ;)