For the last 6 years, I woke up on my birthday and waited for it to happen: that “Woooo, it’s my birthday!” feeling.
It never came.
Frustrating as it was, it wasn’t unexpected. Although I was once a b-day fanatic (my birthday, your birthday, MORE BIRTHDAYS!), Luella’s haywire birth replaced the Woo Birthday feeling with weighty sadness.
Luella was born exactly 3 weeks before I turned 30. I’d envisioned my birthday being our first sweet little family celebration; the glaring contradiction of spending it with her in the NICU was darkly, sickeningly humorous.
The next year, we gave Luella the full “proud parents meet Pinterest” treatment for her 1st birthday. It wasn’t without some anxiety (there may have been a tearful moment over Mike getting balloons in the wrong shade of pink, because he is A MONSTER), but it was a beautiful celebration.
“The hard part is over,” we sighed in relief.
And then the hard part began.
The next day I was filled with dread, knowing it would soon be my birthday. Trying to figure out what to do for it consumed me. Nothing felt quite right.
Three weeks later, I awoke on my 31st birthday in tears, wanting to disappear for the day.
I thought it would improve, but each year was harder. While I’d found a sort-of acceptance around Luella’s birthday, all of the trauma leftovers manifested into anxiety over my own. It became not just a Boo Birthday, but an entirely Blue Season, with dread setting in weeks ahead as the date loomed.
With great (some may call “borderline obsessive”) effort, each year I tried engineering myself into a healthy birthday mindset. Perhaps if I plan nothing? Or plan every detail? Maybe I hike alone?! Or invite all of my friends?!? Maybe this book/blog/meditation can fix everything, because GOD HELP ME I WILL NOT SLEEP UNTIL I HAVE A GOOD BIRTHDAY AND ALL BAD FEELINGS ARE ERASED FOR ALL OF ETERNITY.
The really obnoxious thing about grief is that it’s actually a million tiny griefs. In addition to the big losses, you also lose a seemingly infinite amount of everyday life. Holidays that once made you happy now fill you with dread. Innocuous landmarks become emotional landmines. Smiling photos of unencumbered faces (the “before”) are now tinged with pain.
Every time I thought I knew all that grief had taken, it would snatch away something else, my birthday included.
Unsurprisingly, birthdays continued to suck.
Until this year.
This year, I PLANNED for my birthday to suck. Giving up completely that it could actually be a GOOD day, I asked myself, “How could it suck the LEAST?”
I bookended my birthday with fun trips, reasoning it would forcefully limit the suckiness to just a few days (or that if I was too sad to get out of bed, at least it’d be a NYC bed).
In the days leading up to my birthday, I didn’t feel horrendous. In fact, I was verrrry cautiously looking forward to it. Unconvinced, I went to bed the night before certain I’d spend the day forlorn.
I woke up and waited for the dread to hit. And instead…it was the Woo Birthday feeling.
And for one of the first times in 6 years, it was also something else: joy, without a corresponding sense of foreboding.
Perhaps it was the passage of time. Or accepting that some things are just going to be hard and I can’t force them to be better. Maybe it was Mike moving the TV into the bedroom so I could watch Queer Eye when I woke up (FYI, I will never spend another birthday without the TV being moved into my bedroom, it was straight LUXURY). One may never know.
At 2:30AM on Saturday night, after hours spent celebrating with loving friends and family, I tearfully told Mike, “I feel really, really good…and I’m not taking that for granted.”
I guess that’s the other thing about grief: you gain perspective on the fragility of feeling good.
I’m fully prepared for seasons and birthday that suck; grief isn’t linear or time-limited. But now I also know that a Woo Birthday is possible. Grief will continue to take, but it can also sometimes give way to the good stuff: late-night dancing, silver bodysuits, and summer evenings with people that will “WOOOOOO” you into your 36th year.