I’ve never really been a birthday person.
In the past, the event has been riddled with enough anxiety to make it generally unpleasant. Take singing “Happy Birthday,” for example. What is it if not an occasion to see what funny shade of purple your face will turn this year, or how closely you can examine your shoelaces?
The whole party aspect of it is weird, too. I’m at an odd junction in my life — do I go for the semiformal dinner? Or go to a bowling alley and get a novelty cake, only pretending I’m being ironic? Is it a faux pas to even celebrate at all, though? Is that assuming I’m still at the stage where birthdays mean something other than the continuing descent into the void? Or is it all uphill from here until I reached the hallowed two-one?
It’s mostly an attention issue for me. I don’t like to make people feel like they have to be especially nice to me. The sort of sickly niceness that comes about is, of course, appreciated — but there’s only so many times that I can hear “I hope today is as wonderful as you are” without going ballistic. This is a phrase that I, myself, employ when greeting every single one of my friends on their birthdays.
Then you hit the odd impasse: I was trying to tell my friends to not worry about it this year until one took offense and told me that, fine, she wouldn’t make me her ridiculously wonderful red velvet cake balls as she was planning to.
My instinct told me to start groveling on the floor and begging, making no attempt to hide my enthusiasm. But I’d already been so adamant. What now? Casually make a sly, “Well, I mean, it’s whatever you want, really…” thing, then nonchalantly turning away as if I didn’t really care, sneakily wiping the saliva off my chin?
I ended up somewhere in the middle, admitting it would be lovely but telling her not to worry about it. The entire time I was sending her “do it, do it” brain waves, in case she actually knows how to read minds.
Facebook adds another interesting dynamic. I can’t say I’ve ever written a “happy birthday” message on anyone’s wall, believing myself to be not shallow enough for this, opting instead to send a dispassionate text, or to pursue another 15 minutes of mindless scrolling.
I always try to convince myself it doesn’t mean that much to have a Facebook birthday message, but every year I am surprised at how warm my heart grows when I see notifications from all the well-wishers. Maybe it’s shallow and maybe it’s not, but looking at what people have sent me — no matter if they are my best friends or kids I knew years ago — makes me feel unbelievably fuzzy inside. Then it turns into the crazed stalking up and down my wall, reading and rereading and crazily giggling to myself.
In the end, birthdays are the only holidays that are exclusively personal. You have no choice: You are the center of attention whether you like it or not. Though that’s a hard pill to swallow, at least for me, there really is nothing as heartwarming as the people around you spending their time to pass on their love.
So, it’s my turn now. Thank you to everyone: old friends, best friends, acquaintances, family near and far. I am the luckiest girl ever for knowing all of you and for being able to spend another year with you. Your love is what makes birthdays bearable, no matter how embarrassing they may be.
Emily’s column runs biweekly Wednesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org._