370. The Birthday Blues

I recently attended a party to celebrate Abigail’s sixth birthday, and I stayed longer than her five and six year old friends. Long enough to see her curl up on her mother’s lap with what looked like a sad expression on her face. My first reaction to that look was to think there had been something about the party that had bothered her. For a few seconds, I tried to imagine how the party could have been better. Let’s see – she’d wanted a pirate theme, and there had been buried treasure, eye patches, a gift of a pirate ship, and more. Yes, there had definitely been a Long John Silver feel to the party. And I wasn’t aware of any friends she’d invited who hadn’t shown up.
The party had clearly been the kind she’d wanted. But now it was over. For this child, for most children, and for many adults I know, a birthday is a time to feel special. Of course, everyone else is special, too. Children all get to hunt for buried treasure. They all leave with eye patches. If there’s a sibling or two, sometimes they get presents, too. But everyone also knows whose birthday it is. They give presents to the birthday girl or boy, and sing “Happy Birthday” to him/her. Most people need some time to feel special that way.
But sooner or later, the party’s over. It’s time to call it a day. Abigail’s mother knew what was bothering Abigail, and pretty soon, I knew, too. Her birthday party was over, and she wasn’t going to have another one for about a year. And for a six year old child, a year is forever. She’s only had six years in her whole life! Of course, she’ll still be special, and there are plenty of ways to make sure she knows that. But it’s not the same.
I’ll bet you’ve felt something similar to what Abigail was feeling. It’s a pretty normal thing to feel. When my daughter Lara was six years old, and the two of us had just seen the end of a beautiful sunset, I put a sad expression on my face. It was only partly in jest. Lara said to me, “Nothing lasts forever.” And though she said it with a glint of humor in her voice, she was sort of right. Good times often end.
Abigail’s mother and grandmother were trying to think of ways to cheer up the poor girl. After all, you don’t get to fly to Neverland and see Captain Hook by thinking dismal thoughts. But I added my two cents. I said it was important to have some time to feel sad. Abigail corrected me, though. She said she wasn’t sad; she was mad. And as much as I like to be perceptive and right on target, I believed Abigail. Where did her birthday get the right to end?
Later, at home, I started wondering whether the phrase “happy birthday” ought to be so omnipresent. I’m all for happiness. It’s been a major theme in my life. But there’s more to birthdays than happiness. There’s also the realization that your birthday comes but once a year, and when it’s over, you turn back into a regular person. And there are billions of us. It’s fun to blow out the candles, but after you do, there’s no more flame on them. Just a little smoke.

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