I’ve always enjoyed getting older. That may come as a surprise to some. It’s not the norm. The standard response when asked if your birthday is coming up is something along the lines of: I don’t want to discuss it or don’t remind me. Or an arbitrary number will be chosen to designate perpetual youth. 29 is the most common, 39 if you’re a Jack Benny fan. My wife likes to tell people she’s older than she really is, usually 3-5 years older depending on the day. This way people will look at her and say, “Damn, you look good.”
But that’s not for me. I always tell people my true age, and as for birthdays, I always look forward to them. I suppose most people don’t like birthdays because they see aging as the approach of the inevitable. The body creaks and moans, the skin wrinkles, the hair will gray and thin. The advancement of age is also the advancement of death. No one wants to be reminded of death. Death sucks.
But that’s not how I see it. Getting older doesn’t mean getting old. Getting older means I’ve done more things. Getting older means I’ve seen more things, experienced more. In my time I have seen tragedy and tears. I have heard laughter, I’ve known love. Time has twirled and twisted and spun into terrible times where I thought I would be crushed by the weight of eternity, and then into times of exaltation, happiness so great I thought I could not endure it. And times in between where life has just been life. When living was just as good as it gets. But always it has been unexpected. Always it has been new. A birthday is simply a reset. It’s the moment where I assess what came before and prepare for what will be.
In two days I will turn forty-four years old. I like that number. There is a certain something to it, the symmetry I suppose. And there is alliteration, I like alliteration a lot. I’ve always seen birthdays as little moments that define the whole. Maybe I didn’t see it at the time, or understand. But in time, in retrospect, I see periods of my life. My life reflected in little celebrations of me.
When I turned five I spent my birthday at my favorite place, the Longhorn Steakhouse. We wore cowboy hats and sheriff stars. I was allowed to eat any steak I wanted and fried shrimp too. And best of all instead of candles Longhorn used sparklers. The waitress came out holding a small round cake with what looked to me like a shooting star on top and the whole restaurant sang to me.
At twenty I rented a small house in the Pocono Mountains with a few friends. We walked in the woods during the day the grilled burgers for dinner. That night we built a fire in a pit in the front yard. We sat on logs around it and drank beer till the light disappeared. Till there was nothing left but sparks and the flames and the sound of our voices and our laughter. My friend Phil raised his bottle to me, “How does it feel to never be a teenager again?” he asked. I did not know how to answer.
Twenty-seven came in the Fillmore Auditorium watching the Pogues. I jumped up and down pretending that I was dancing. I drank shots of Jamison whiskey and wished that I hadn’t. My best friend Pete wrapped an arm around my neck and screamed into my face, “Does it get better than this?” Bleary-eyed and drunk I didn’t know the answer.
My 30th birthday was spent on the balcony level of the Wazee Supper Club with a handful of friends, several large pizzas and pitchers of Harp and Guinness. My wife Teri sipped club soda and wore a tight dress, her belly not beginning to show yet. She stood in the center of the room beneath a ceiling lamp, a spotlight illuminating her in the darkness. With all eyes upon her she told a story, gesturing as she spoke like she was conducting the crowd. When she finished a roll of laughter fell across the listeners and she smiled – a large toothy thing that made her eyes squint and tiny lines form at their edges – and I remember thinking at that moment that she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I would continue to think that until the following Halloween when my daughter was born.
On the day I turned thirty-six I drove home in a late April snowstorm. This is not uncommon in the Rockies. I was tired, I was in a foul mood and I had talked myself into a depression over what I believed my life should be. I should have achieved more. It should have been different. I should have been different, better. I didn’t like how my life looked. As I came through the door I was greeted by my wife and my daughter both wearing oven mitts and dabbed lightly with flour. Between them they held a baking tray with some kind of mound on it. The mound was roughly oval in shape and rose up on one side into a rounded peak. It dipped in the center into a creator before collapsing to a flat area. The entire thing was covered in a white gooey substance that was globed and thick in certain places. Parts of the goo were tinted bluish-green. Scrawled across the surface was the word: Daddy. My daughter smiled at me as I looked at the thing in astonishment, “I think it’s a cake,” she said. And with smiles and laughter we dug into the thing and discovered it was indeed a cake. And despite its appearance it was delicious.
In two days I will turn forty-four. I already know how I will spend it. I will watch my daughter dance in competition. I will sit in a darkened auditorium and I will watch her twirl and jump and spin. She is so graceful. So beautiful. A present better than I could have dreamed.
originally published April 27, 2013