Birthdays. The day we celebrate our messy, claustrophobic journey toward post-uterine light and oxygen and make an entrance into the world. The day we are smacked on the backside and utter our first cry bringing overwhelming joy, and perhaps fear, to our parents.
Birthdays are on my mind because I recently had one. Birthdays can be fun. Cake, presents, games, friends, family, homemade animal costumes, surprises that underwhelm and awkward suggestions.
You are no doubt wondering about those last three. Let’s start with the homemade animal costume. Memorable birthdays for my family include me dressing up under duress as a skunk for my younger sister’s birthday party when I was about seven or eight. The year before my debut as the love interest of Pepe le Pew, my parents paid to have a children’s entertainer show up as Smurfette in blue body paint and the white hat, dress and heels. It was an absolute thrill for my sister and her friends and set high expectations for future parties.
The next year the budget must have been tighter or we fell prey to procrastination because Smurfette was no longer an option. Instead, my poor, little sister’s guest of honor was her poor big sister in a black leotard and tights with cotton balls taped to her tuchus. I’m told my attitude by the end of the party lived up to odor associated with the furry, smelly rodent whose likeness I bore, and that my sister was mostly unimpressed. Bless both of our hearts.
Now, on to your other obvious question, the underwhelming surprise. For one of my dad’s thirty-something birthdays, my mom got him a new bamboo rocking chair that swiveled. The cushions were that rusty shade of burnt orange that was all the rage in the 80’s. She sweetly wanted it to be a surprise and tried to make him think the gift was something entirely unrelated. Good idea, but it all went sadly wrong.
Mom kept hinting that we got him a four wheeler. The thing is, dad is an outdoorsman, a hunter who wears camo for fun, hangs antlers anywhere she lets him and had dreamed of owning a four wheeler for years. When he opened that giant, cardboard box, I’d never seen a person’s face go from smiling to not, so quickly. The mark was well-missed on under-promise and over-deliver. Dad’s such a fantastic, easy-going, contented sport. He was quick to rally, and he happily rocked in that orange thing until it creaked its last breath years later.
Finally, on to the third thing you must be curious about, the awkward suggestion. A week or so before my dad’s birthday a few years ago, I told him and my mom they should get a large sleeping bag, grease it with cooking oil and zip it up. Then, naturally, my dad should make a running start, dive on his belly and go barreling through it, bursting through the zippered end to re-enact his birth. My head flew back as I belly-laughed. I found this idea highly worthy of calorie-burning merriment. My parents, on the other hand wore shocked expressions that said the imagery was just too much. Needless to say, they went another direction for the celebration.
This was on a 5x7 banner for my 40th birthday!
Like I mentioned at the start, birthdays are on my mind because I recently had one, a big one. The one that rhymes with shorty. I said goodbye to 30, flirty and thriving and bid those humbling, confidence-building, self-finding years adieu. I said come hither and “Helllllooooo, beautiful!” to the next decade, looking forward to finding everything there is to be found in my forties.
As I reflected on the first four decades of life, I thought of happy memories. Many of them involve family and friends I’ve been blessed to make across states and an ocean. Many include humor, and others center on meaningful work that has made a positive impact in some small way. Sad memories also crossed my mind. Unmet expectations, loneliness, physical and emotional pain, loved ones who are no longer here.
Throughout the rolling waves of these memories, one sense floated to the top – a sense of gratitude for God’s faithfulness. He’s been there for every moment good and bad.
One heartbreaking experience in my thirties proved to me yet again that He was near. When a friend died suddenly and tears were my constant companion, He was with me. When I asked why and wondered if I could have done something, He was with me. When I sat numb in church and cried my way through worship every Sunday for the next year, He was with me. When I think about her on the anniversary of her passing each November, He is with me, and He softly reminds me He is with her too.
The older we get, the more life we live, the more we see that life is the gift. God is the gift. It is with sincere thanks that I look back on my life so far, and it is with anticipation that I cast my gaze forward even with the unavoidable loses.
I’m glad I was born. I’m glad my mom ate her Wheaties and said “Heeee, heeeeee, hoooo!” over and over again one August morning in 1978. I’m glad my dad stood next to her in his polyester, mid-thigh athletic shorts with a stop watch around his neck timing her contractions. I’m glad for another birthday in the blessed books even if there was no skunk costume. I will continue to look fondly on the memory of the underwhelming surprise, and, don’t worry, I’ll continue to provide awkward suggestions to the chagrin of some and the comedic pleasure of others.
What about you? Why are you grateful for your most recent or upcoming birthday? How have you experienced God’s nearness in the ups and downs of life?