The day before I turned 38, I had a fever, aches and pains, and a softball game to take my daughter to in the late afternoon. I limped across the park, shivering, and instead of being on the field with the team like I usually am, I watched Eloise play from a fold-up chair behind home plate, feeling colder and colder by the minute. As a widowed single mother, there was barely any choice other than not having her play, and I try to limit the impact of our circumstances at all costs possible. I was fortunate enough to have both of my parents in the child-wrangling arena, one occupying the 4-year-old, and the other taking the oldest to his baseball practice. Not everyone is so lucky.
I wondered why I had tortured myself by being there, but when Eloise kept popping over with a smile to give me and a hug despite my warnings that I was contagious, the answer was obvious. I was her only fan at the game that day, but she looked at me like I was the only one she ever wanted.
By the time we got home my fever had worsened, and in the last hours of being 37 for the rest of my entire natural life, I fell asleep to the sound of Peter Jack wailing in his bedroom because I wouldn’t let him sleep in my bed.
I forgot it was my birthday when I woke up hours before the sun came out the next day, too busy assessing my aches and pains and thinking about the presentation I was scheduled to give at work. Staying home was not an option despite the persistent fever and birthday on the calendar.
This is it, I thought. This is 38. Just another ordinary Tuesday of being a single mom.
My weeks had been a flurry of softball and baseball. Work. Packing lunches. Making dinner. Cleaning. Remembering to make this appointment and that appointment. Girl Scouts. Temple. Running around. Bed time. Wake up time. Trying to remember. Always trying to remember. Dealing with the forgets.
I already knew my birthday afternoon would be spent cramming in essential errands that couldn’t be done on practice and game days. Picking up Ethan’s prescription sports goggles so he could see properly on the field. Finding shoes that would fit his new brace for his leg affected by cerebral palsy, and replacing outgrown shoes for the other kids. I wasn’t planning to go out to eat or have cake because I was not feeling well. The day was a wash.
Maybe this was the age I had always heard about, when you don’t care about your birthday anymore?
That forsaken place in adulthood when nothing fazes you. You become a ship that has drifted too far past the horizon, youth nothing but a distant, unreachable shore of fuzzy, fragmented memories.
I don’t want to go to that place in adulthood though. That’s never been me. I never want to not care. I want to always be excited by a birthday.
I straightened my unwashed hair for good measure and put on make-up, and I thought about a nugget of conversation lodged in my mind from the night before.
Before the Peter tantrum, my firstborn Ethan wandered into my bedroom while I was curled under a blanket in the fetal position waiting for Tylenol to kick in. He plopped down next to me despite the germs disclosure, ever loyal to his mother.
“What did you want in your life before you had me?” he asked, and I pictured that moment would have been better side-by-side stretched out on soft, wild grass in the shade of a sprawling weeping willow tree on a sunny day, our hands tucked behind our heads as we gazed at shape-shifting fluffy white clouds. .
Instead there was the annoying bright light of my bedroom, my one eye shut with the other half open trying to pay attention to my son as waves of nausea hit. I wasn’t in the mood to chit-chat, but bless his heart he was doing his best to cheer me up.
“Like what was your top 5 things that you wanted?” Ethan added when I didn’t respond right away.
So I gave him a list.
Buying a house.
Having kids, preferably lots of them.
Be a writer and write books.
Basically lots of kids and lots of books. Except having lots of kids doesn’t lend itself to writing lots of books.
“I just need to finish writing a book,” I said, apparently still stuck in apologizing mode for the goals I haven’t accomplished yet.
“Well, you do write,” Ethan said, “so you are a writer.”
“But I need to write books.”
“I think you’re a writer, but that’s not bad. Four out of five done already.”
A 10-year-old put my 38 years of existence into perspective, perhaps his gift for making this boring birthday more palatable.
By the late afternoon I had given a presentation to 110 people, worked on various work projects while feeling like crap, picked up kids, driven to the optometrist, and took the kids to the mall for shoe shopping that required multiple fittings to accommodate the brace and a wild Peter Jack zipping around displays testing out the speed of his new “fast shoes.” Kids were hangry. I was tired, but feeling better, so we decided to go out to dinner after all. Not to my first choice place, but somewhere convenient that we could all agree on. Eloise said Happy Birthday to me 38 times and told me jokes. Her and Peter Jack gave me handwritten notes and left it on my desk. I had bought myself two books, and at the end of the day I took them out of their Amazon packaging to admire my only presents, trying not to dwell on the memories of the days when my husband would surprise me with something and a card telling me how much he loved me. Now I had to tell myself how much I loved me.
Still, I found myself not exactly disappointed about the way I entered year 38.
It definitely wasn’t the “me” time I would have picked, and there was no pomp and circumstance of a birthday. But I got to spend time with one of my “four out of five.”
My ultimate dreams-come-true. The best gifts I ever got. I spent my childhood playing with dolls and imagining my future kids. I was born knowing I’d be a mother, and then I got to become one. Not exactly how I planned– single mom wasn’t part of the dream– but does it matter how?
One of my kids was starry-eyed for me at her softball game, lavishing pure puppy-like love on me. Another kid cried just to sleep next to me. And the biggest of my kids probed my mind about my life ambition, interested in knowing who I am as a person and not just as his mother.
I think we can find our dreams right in the middle of the most mundane details of our lives.
I saw a picture on Timehop from my 30th birthday party. My late husband, sensing my expectations, tried to throw me a surprise party that he ended up angrily disclosing to me before the event when I confronted him about a ticket I found in our mailbox for talking on the cellphone while driving. I was upset that he didn’t tell me.
“But I was calling your mom, planning YOUR surprise party,” he argued.
There went the surprise, and I resented him for it.
I looked at the pictures of me from 8 years ago at that party. My hair is shorter. Ethan is a toddler sitting in my lap, my only child. There are people in the background who are no longer in our lives, and we were in a house where we no longer live. I barely know the baby- faced young woman celebrating her birthday. She is not my life today, and yet that person was an integral part of who I am today.
I remember being annoyed that my husband didn’t even bother to make the party reflect the things that I liked, going along with a color scheme I disliked, food I would have never picked, and other than citing the cell phone ticket as a sign of his commitment to the cause, there was little else done on his part to make the party something I would love. But he did something. He was there, with his version of good intentions, and in hindsight the other details never really mattered anyway.
I don’t want to go back to 30. I’m done with 37.
I’ve been thinking about Kobe since his memorial just took place. He was known for his hard work, “mamba” mentality, and dedication to the game. But when you watch his game or anyone else’s game, all you see are a couple hours of entertainment. You overlook the hours and hours and days and years and decades of blood, sweat, and tears. It took the creative genius Michelangelo 4 years to paint the Sistine Chapel, yet we stroll through it on a tour in less than fifteen minutes and can buy cheap prints of his masterpieces. We see what is on the surface.
An uneventful Tuesday birthday doesn’t give any insight into my 38 years of existence. But as I sat at dinner with my kids and enjoyed our time together as a family of four, I remembered what was below my surface, and I silently thanked the universe for giving me another day to keep going.
Four out of five is great, but it doesn’t reflect what I want for myself right now. As I’ve gotten older, I have learned to embrace shifting priorities, the beauty of seasons, and the coming and going and intermingling of what is new and old in our lives.
My list right now is more important to me because it’s the one steering the direction for tomorrow.
I want to build muscles and prioritize fitness and eating clean.
Learn screenwriting and finish that book I’ve been wanting to write.
Go to Thailand and Japan this summer with the kids (fingers crossed coronavirus doesn’t thwart this).
Spend lots of quality time with loved ones.
And next year, who knows.
Getting older has meant becoming less concerned with the bigger goals in life and more focused on how to spend each ordinary day, doing the bit-by-bit work that moves me forward.
And in a life that is never guaranteed, it is my ultimate goal to find joy in the day-to-day mundane. For me, this seems to be the best road map for reaching the elusive happiness we all want.