On my 43rd birthday, I woke up and looked in the mirror at my year-older self. I had a new giant, bright red pimple, worthy of a pizza-devouring teenager, the kind even cover-up can’t truly mask. When I went downstairs to fix my lunch, the big, fat avocado I had hoped to eat, one that had the perfect give of ripeness when gently squeezed, once cut, was entirely black inside, like one giant bruise. The new shoes I had bought myself as a present—Danskos that I had splurged on (even through eBay) because they are supposed to be wildly comfortable—were already giving me blisters by the time I got back from walking the dogs. I was, you might say, a little grumpy by then.
But when I arrived at my office, wishing I didn’t have to work, my boss presented me with a box of donuts and a jug of freshly squeezed orange juice. The department had made me a card with a silly graphic of cats and books—knowing I have too many of both, and am probably equally passionate about both. We sat at our big round worktable, usually reserved for meetings and laying out the next magazine, instead eating sticky sweets and licking our fingers and laughing. It was a good take two for the morning.
Throughout the day, I received 118 Facebook posts, many emails and a few texts, all from people I really like. It was nice. I had received exactly four old fashioned cards by snail mail, and the people who sent those get gold stars in Heaven (you know who you are!).
I waited all day to see if my brother, Tommy, would remember. Ever since our brother, David, died almost eight years ago, he’s tried. I think. David was the one who always, always remembered, and always, always called. Tommy never used to—but sometimes he does now, as if he is trying to fill in where David left off. But because he’s unpredictable, it almost feels worse than if he never said “Happy Birthday.” Because now I expect it—and a wise person once said, “Expectation is the death of serenity.” It is. Tommy didn’t remember.
I missed my David painfully hard. All day.
I bought myself what I consider an expensive bottle of wine. A $14 J. Lohr Cabernet. Drank it on the porch while I tinkered with the ukulele I received from my husband last birthday, which I have barely played since. Light, pretty tones came off of its strings and floated into the summery air despite my lack of skill.
My husband brought home my favorite pizza since we were too broke to go out. We ate in front of the TV indecorously, as I wanted to, and then followed our kid-like binge with large slices of the homemade lemon cake my mother had sent. This is a totally predictable ritual. Each year, she frets about getting it here on time, worries about what the level of freshness it will be when it arrives, wrings her hands over whether it will be crushed. She always sends it Priority, and it always arrives early, perfectly intact and utterly delicious.
My dad and stepmother, both church choir singers, called and sang “Happy Birthday” to me on my voicemail—with beautiful harmonies. It nearly made me cry.
“Now I want to hear 80s music,” I said to my husband, embracing the regressive tendencies the day had brought out in me. He found a Tom Petty concert on TV and we watched it all the way through. (My first record, incidentally, was Long After Dark. I bought it with my own money when I was nine.)
At the end of the night, I emailed my high school boyfriend, the one who was born on the same day and the same year as me, to say, “I have no idea how we ended up being 43!” We had celebrated our 16th and 17th birthdays together, for crying out loud. While we clearly weren’t meant to be together romantically forever, I’m so happy we are still friends, and I enjoy the ritual of touching base each year on our birthday. I remembered vividly emailing him on our 40th and it seemed impossible that three more years had passed.
This morning, I was pleased to see a message from him. “Well, I guess it doesn’t feel as old as 46. At that point, we’ll be closer to 50 than 40 (yikes),” he wrote in reply. True.
I suddenly wondered nervously if it would feel lightning-fast to get to that landmark, since the time seems to keep speeding up each year. Then I just hoped I would make it. I realize that getting older is a great privilege, and one not afforded to all. To have donuts and songs and kind messages—and even a terrible zit—makes for a decent day of living even if you don’t get everything you wished for.