Yesterday marked my 36th birthday.
Since I hit my 30's, birthdays have been a little bit of a struggle for me. Thirty itself was fine, but 31 came only a few days after I found out my Dad had cancer and, well, the birthdays that followed have been on the rocky side. I really expected the same of 36. The week prior to my birthday had been an awful one-- we lost a very dear family member to cancer who was no older than we are; I watched a little boy I know be pulled, with no breath and no pulse, from the bottom of the neighborhood pool; I bought the first Father's Day card for my Mom's new husband. It was seven days of travel, memorial services, and sadness. Wednesday started a new week, a fresh week, and my birthday. And, amazingly, it was a good one.
No, I didn't do anything particularly special to mark the day. I spend a solid two hours at the gym and got my first great, endorphin-rush workout since I broke my foot. It felt so good to sweat and push myself and mentally bleed out all that "wrongness" that had been stirring inside me-- death and stress and despair. The entire time I was at the gym I marveled at what a gift it was to have two healthy feet (hooray for healed fractures!) and a job that allows me to choose not to work on my birthday (hooray for substitute teaching!) and cooperative blood sugar (I don't know what to hooray here-- this is a tricky one, and something that usually doesn't happen, so it might be something like hooray for a blood sugar birthday gift from Jesus!). I left, dripping wet, with tired muscles and a peaceful mind.
The rest of the day was equally low-key, but satisfying. I showered and painted my nails (purple, in honor of my birthday) and reveled in the sunshine and the silence. I spent some time at Maddie's grave (the one-year anniversary of her death is Friday). I read beautiful cards that came in the mail from loved ones who were kind enough to think of my birthday and send me some cheer. I met Blaker for a late lunch, and came home to find the house decorated with pink and purple balloons and streamers and general festivity (B had snuck home while I was running errands before lunch and decorated). I got to hug my babies and talk to them while they had dinner, then have a later, "grown up" dinner with my sweet B. There were fancy cupcakes, and at 36, it was as Anna Quindlen would have said-- "Lots of candles, plenty of cake." It was a lovely day.
Last night as I was lying in bed, I started thinking about WHY the day was so nice. WHY did I enjoy my birthday for the first time in a while? My actions on this birthday weren't all that different from recent birthdays past. It was my first birthday with most of my friends gone. I definitely wasn't getting any younger. But in time I came 'round to the thought that I was definitely getting wiser (I know-- you're thinking, "HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?"). I'll explain. For the first time in a long time, I allowed myself to enjoy my birthday and not feel guilty. Since losing my Dad, joy is something that always seems to come with guilt. I hadn't ever figured out that it was possible to miss my Dad and find happiness at the same time, without feeling like I was doing him a disservice. Yesterday, I missed my Dad like hell. I would have given a decade off my life to have spent one more hour with him. But I was also able to find joy in what I still have-- a wonderful husband, beautiful and healthy children, my sweet Mimi dog, the ability to listen to an old voicemail my Grandmother sent me before she died last year, telling me how much she loved me--and appreciate it simultaneously with missing my Dad. I didn't have to choose between heartache and happiness, I found that it IS possible to have some of both, and to even reach out with both arms and embrace the happy.
Maybe I woke up a little more mature at 36. Maybe my epiphany was a gift from my Dad. Or God. Or both. I don't know. But what I do know is that life has its ups, and plenty of downs and is full of moments that feel like falling off a cliff-- scary and fast and out of control. Perhaps that's kind of the point. That in itself, my friends, could be the meaning of LIFE.