Every year, I stare at the flames as they dance like tender leaves in the wind. “Make a wish!” my family and friends instruct. I stare again at the candles. A Tesla seems like the right wish, but what are the odds the birthday fairy gets it equipped like I want?
At the robust age of 32 I wanted something a bit different for this year’s celebration. I am done with the bar parties that produced their unique set of fuzzy memories. Last year’s fête was a backyard BBQ with picture-perfect weather. This year I aimed for less of a celebration of me and the ceaseless wheels of time and more an acknowledgement of the important people in my life.
The past week was full of social notifications of birthday celebrations of yesteryears. That year my birthday coincided with the NATO Summit in Chicago. The fateful year I thought a bar crawl and drinking Four Loko in the men’s room with my date wouldn’t have consequences. The austere year gazing at the sun setting into Lake Michigan. The year I was bamboozled by my girlfriend and surprised by a cadre of friends for a surprise 30th that I never saw coming and will never forget. Like the photo in Back to the Future some friends have since faded into solely memories. Now there are new friends who don’t know the stories of birthdays past.
My goal this year was get to know my friends more deeply and share stories. What were their birthdays like? What were milestone birthdays for them? Are they still close to friends from when they were a kid? Were they ever thrown a surprise party? What birthday traditions would they continue for their children?
With my wandering monkey mind the party theme emerged: the meta birthday. Naturally there would be a heaping amount of smoked pork shoulder. Now that I’m in my thirties it was only responsible of me to serve baked beans and enough cole slaw to outmatch the strongest of enemas. #ColonHealth
I spent the morning of my birthday looking through a photo album — a tangible photo album, not the archived digital splattering of photos — my mom put together of pictures from my youth. I traced the disappearing baby chunk to lean youth years to the current blend of burrito-induced heft and lanky limbs. Years flipped by with the simple turn of a page. As time went by there were different friends in the photos, different houses, different cakes, a different me.
As a kid I wanted to be older. On my 10th birthday I told people I was a quarter of the way up the proverbial hill. The joke killed with the 35 and up crowd. Other 10 year olds weren’t as amused.
I used to look in the mirror (queue Mulan soundtrack) wondering what I would look like. How tall would I be? What I would do? Where I would live? Would I be happy? Who would my friends be? I’m not sure what my rush was to grow up. I liked school. I wanted to be the play-by-play man for the Cubs, so there was a piece of me that was in a hurry to tour the country and call the Friendly Confines my office. I also wanted older man hands like my grandpa’s. There was a soft mushiness to his palms that I loved and still miss.
Looking at the photos it seems like much longer than 25 years ago I was at Chuck E. Cheese slogging through plastic ball pits. Certain birthday memories endure like the parties of my childhood friends. One party started with shucking corn in my friend’s kitchen before dinner. We ran around Leaps ’N Bounds or Discovery Zone, whichever it was named at the time, before going for a short ride in my friend’s dad’s semi cab and using the CB radio to chat with truck drivers. The intended sleepover ended with a call to my mom and my friend’s brother driving me home. Young me didn’t handle excitement and sleepovers well. You could argue that hasn’t changed.
I still occasionally look in the mirror asking myself the same questions from my youth wondering what my life will be. I’m rather confident I’ve stopped growing height-wise, width-wise is still TBD.
This year, I looked at the candles and realized as much as things change–friends, jobs, housing, facial hair– having friends and loved ones who care about me is greater than anything I could have wished for or imagined before blowing out the candles (except for maybe a Tesla).