Bella's class has rotating weekly jobs -- you know, line leader, bell ringer, conflict resolution manager (remind me to tell you about that one some time, bless these Quaker schools!) -- and this week she's on calendar/date detail. Which means, oh, right about now, she's informing her class of 20-something kids and two teachers that today is her mom's birthday and she's turning 41. This after a somewhat serious conversation where I told her that not all adults like to talk about how old they are, so it's not always polite to ask them or announce it if she knows. But in Bella's world, birthdays are for cake! and celebrating and presents! and cake! and seriously Mom, what's the big deal?
I've always been fairly low key about my birthday, save maybe for grad school where for some reason everybody loved birthdays and really got into them. There were big elaborate dinner parties and cake and shitloads of presents (how on earth did we afford all that stuff? I mean, they weren't big things, but somewhere out there is a picture of me a few sheets away wearing a brand new raquetball glove and holding a Sting CD) and maybe we just needed the excuse -- especially in winter, and March in Wisconsin was still winter, don't be fooled -- to drink and eat and have an evening off. I've always requested a locale where I can watch basketball because I'm riveted to the tournament, and in fact I'm now remembering that six years ago, pregnant with Bella, at my direction, I met a bunch of people at a sports bar for my birthday dinner.
My brithday fell almost a month to the day after Maddy's death and did nothing but remind me of time passing and how I had experienced massive fail at building a family in my thirties. I remember I made a cake, but requested no presents, and I'm pretty sure I ate said cake at the counter, like the song says. I also had this memory of telling my therapist that I made a cake and her eyebrows shooting up, as if to say, "Well hey now, that's impressive! Not bad, you grieving mom, you!" The following year was more or less the same, staring the big one in the eye and wondering if I'd ever get my life back.
Last year was bad. I spent the day -- a chilly, damp one -- moving my grandmother into a home. (She died five months later.) I think I passed on the presents again, but there was chocolate stout cake (or as Bella calls it, "Beer Cake"). I then sunk into a few weeks of 40-Funk. I remember going to New York shortly after my birthday and having our friend ask me at dinner how I was doing, and replying -- with a big nasty grin -- "Horrible!" And then having to explain to myself. Nothing like feeling an entire decade has slipped out from under your feet with very little to show for it. And my husband chimes in, wait a fucking minute, how about that little PhD thing? Or the, you know, getting married thing? Or buying a house thing? (And buying another?) Or having Bella thing? And I nod, but it all seems to get swallowed by the big ugly on the eve of 38. I guess I thought if that turned out ok, I'd have two years to get a great job and visit the pyramids and make up for it all. Or something.
Sometimes you need to hit bottom to give your feet something firm to rest on while you bend your knees and push upwards.
It's almost as if once 40 was in the rear-view mirror, and the mourning period was over, I felt like the monkey was off my back, without the big date looming over me. And a month or two later, I had this crazy idea that maybe we should try this project one more time. I think just the trying was good enough for me, because now I could use 40 as an excuse if it didn't work. I could try everything, but if it all failed and they came back and shrugged their shoulders and sadly mouthed, "Forty," I could shrug mine and say, "Well that's ok, I expected it." And go home knowing I tried but it was just too late. In retrospect, I really may have expected that to happen. Because I was a bit shocked and caught off guard when it didn't.
Today, in a departure from years past, my husband and daughter are taking me out to dinner at a very lovely restaurant (where we will all pray that my daughter behaves and finds something on the menu that she will eat). Again, I am making my own cake, but I love to bake and birthdays are great excuses so no pity there. And I know because I've seen the amazon boxes arrive that there are two gifts -- an electronic gizmo that you set on your counter and throw meat and vegetables in and by the next evening it has made your dinner and mopped your floors and weeded your garden; and a game for the Wii that starts with FIFA and ends with 2010 and makes me all giggly. There will be craploads of basketball in the interim. And it's absolutely beautiful outside, with an expected high of 72.
A few years ago Niobe introduced me to Bishop Allen's The News From Your Bed. It became my song. It still is my song, especially today. In fact, back when you could make your own ringtones, I spliced this song so that my ringtone started with the verse "When Your Family Calls, You Make Nice to them all/Assure them you're fine and you're great." And then because every mac product melts into a pile of worthless dung when I touch it, I synced my phone and lost my ringtone along with a ton of notes and other stuff, and I can't recreate it. Just writing about it now makes my blood pressure skyrocket and my eyes brim, I get so angry. (My ringtone is now the tornado music from the "Wizard of Oz," which when you think about it is appropriate for just about any call I could possibly receive on my cell phone.) But it's still in my music mix, and I still cling to it like a security blanket. I may not have a lot of friends anymore to go crazy with, and I can pour my own cakes (and drinks) but I've got a few people still looking out after me, and that? Will do.