Last Sunday was my birthday. I turned 60. Everyone who knows me steers clear of me on that day. It’s not that I mind getting old – being 60 suits me as well as Gloria Steinem turning 40. It’s just that I hate celebrating my birthday. As a child, every birthday was a disappointment. As an adult, it became my designated day to wallow in all the shortcomings I tried to brush aside the rest of the year.
This attitude has diminished benefit over time. Then I received a remarkable gift; a greeting card from my sister proclaiming “Rise and Shine’. I howled in laughter when I opened it. The card made me realize that it’s time to bury my birthday morose.
The confluence of calendar and chronology conspired to make my childhood birthday’s regular disappointments. I was the fourth child born within five years. Can you guess I’m Irish? My birthday’s in February, the final event of a holiday season that began with one brother’s birthday in October, my sister in November, mom in December, then Christmas, followed by two early January birthdays that got swept into our exuberant holidays. By mid-winter my mother decided to economize, sat me down, and delivered the annual message, “Your birthday will be a little light this year.” One year, there wasn’t even a cake.
After my psychiatrist asked, twenty years later, when I was going to get angry at my parents for their shortcomings. I chuckled and recalled a particular family ruckus of my parents arguing before their four young children. Other seven year olds might be afraid, but I just shrugged. “They’re nice people, just in over their heads.” No child should be so detached from his family. I never mustered that anger my therapist considered essential to mental health. My parents were clueless, but that’s not a crime.
Regardless what chaos prevailed, every morning my mother barged into our rooms, threw open the shades and screamed ‘Rise and Shine’. Yesterday was done. We were starting over again. Unfortunately, since we never learned anything from yesterday, starting over again usually meant resalting the same wounds.
My sister describes growing up as ‘one long scream’ for, in truth, from “Rise and Shine” to “Did you say your prayers” our mother’s voice betrayed her frustration. The cruelty of time and culture made this lovely person an ill-suited 50’s mom instead of a 90’s career woman. But I took her morning greeting as a directive to ‘get up and get the hell out of here’. Which I did. Except on February 22, when I allowed myself to get dragged back into my stifling childhood.
Woe to the girlfriend, wife, boyfriend, whatever, who tried to celebrate my birthday. I bickered with Lisa through too many birthday dinners, turned Paul Hempel away after he had waiters sing to me, and broke up with Paul Beaulieu before he even got that chance.
I did have three wonderful birthdays. My sister gave me a surprise sixteen party where I got my first record albums – Elton John and Judy Collins’ Wildflowers. At 35 my wife rented a mezzanine booth at The Roxy and took ten of our friends dancing. I turned 50 at my niece’s wedding; my sister had the DJ play the Beatle’s ‘Birthday’ and let me swing her across the dance floor. But three out of fifty is hardly a winning proportion.
I have ‘Rised and Shined’ over 21,000 times since the day I was born, discounting those all-nighters when I didn’t need to rise and probably didn’t shine. I’ve gotten so far away from my childhood I don’t need to give it another thought, let alone waste another birthday wallowing in its pain. I toyed with having a party this year, but that seemed too great a leap. Instead, I spent a satisfying day with my son Andy in Virginia: a fourth memorable birthday. He even surprised me with a cake. God willing, I still have many years left. Who knows, one of those years, I might even manage a party.