May 5th was my birthday. I turned 56. It’s been a tradition of mine, a week or so before my actual birthday, to get more depressed than normal, followed by a wave of self-pity. Thank God, with everything that has been going on in the world and that fact I have not left my house in two months, I figured I wouldn’t have to work as hard to get depressed this year.
But it turns out, I actually enjoyed my birthday more than I ever have.
It had something to do with my three-and-half year old daughter, Betsy, who likes to celebrate anything and loves a good party. I want to make it clear she did not get that from me. So when she found out last week that my birthday was coming up, she began to get excited and wanted to start planning a party, which she also did not get from me.
She wanted to do a puppet show party, so we started by making a puppet theater out of cardboard, complete with pink curtains.
Then on the morning of May 3rd she began jumping around filled with urgency and joy. “Come on Daddy! We have a lot of work to do for your party. We need invitations.”
So, we quickly made a guest list of my closest friends and some local merchants. Then we started making invitations. We had quite an efficient assembly line going as I hand wrote the invitations and she put them in envelopes and sealed them up.
We then got in the Honda and drove to the post office where I pretended to put the invitations in the mailbox, but instead put them in my coat pocket.
The next day, she and Lauren made a chocolate cake with green frosting, because that is my favorite color, never mind that I don’t eat sugar.
That night, a strange thing happened. I started to feed off of her excitement about my birthday, which was the next day. So when Betsy was asleep, I took out a big piece of paper and made a sign in magic marker saying, “Happy Birthday Daddy,” and then went to the garage and pulled out some Christmas lights and put them around the sign.
In my head, I was telling myself that I was making the sign for Betsy, so she would be surprised in the morning, but the truth is I was making it for both of us.
I have never been this into my birthday before. Sure, I’ve had big parties with lots of people, like when I turned 40 and 50. But those parties seemed forced, like I was trying to please my therapist. I always felt uncomfortable and embarrassed by the all of the attention on me.
And I’ve had smaller birthday parties, too, and they’re not really any better. Usually, I’m running around obsessing about the food or worrying that people are having a good time, forgetting that people are there to celebrate me.
At 7:18 a.m. Central Time on May 5th, Betsy came barreling into our bedroom like it was Christmas morning saying, “Daddy, Daddy! Wake up! It’s your birthday!”
By this point, Betsy had changed her mind that she wanted to have a pool party. So, after having pancakes, which are reserved for special occasions like holidays and birthdays in our house, she put on her bathing suit, which she wore all day.
But in all our pretending, I had forgotten to add a disclaimer. Betsy really believed that people were physically going to come over to our house for a pool party.
Lauren told me this in the late afternoon when I woke up from a nap and said, “I just told Betsy that we’re not having a real pool party and nobody is actually coming over. She has tears coming down her face. She doesn’t understand.”
Though the party scenario was pretend, the feelings my daughter was having were real. Betsy has been experiencing a lot of disappointments in her life lately, so I at least want to prevent the ones that are caused by my pretending.
To make things even more complicated, Lauren had organized a surprise Zoom sing-a-long party for that night, and didn’t tell Betsy because she was afraid Betsy would tell me.
But thank God I am trained in improvisation because I told Betsy we would have a pool party after all and I turned our bathtub into a pool.
It was total DIY. All it took was a couple of stools, a sign that said “pool” and our bathing suits. We both got in the tub and pretended to give her three dolls swimming lessons. We had our swim party and at the end she said, “Daddy, that was a blast.”
If that was not enough, that night at 6 p.m., some of my closest friends joined me on Zoom for my surprise sing-a-long party. As you can imagine, a sing-a-long on Zoom is technically a clusterfuck. I didn’t care. We sang some of my favorite sad songs like, “Fire and Rain” and “Piano Man.”
One of the biggest character defects in my life is my inability to take in love. I always seem to be distracted by low self-esteem.
But this year was different. Thanks to my daughter, Lauren, and all of my friends from all over the country who took 45 minutes out of their day to show up for me, for once, I was really able to take in the love.