Content warning: This article contains mention of familial death.
On Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002, my dad was facing a unique conflict of interests: on one hand, his wife had just gone into labor. On the other hand, Season 4, Episode 2 of “The Sopranos” was airing. From that first (literal) birthday, spent crying and screaming and confused, to now, 20 years later, my birthdays often still find me crying and screaming and even more confused. Birthdays, for many, bring up a whirlwind of emotions. There is no guidebook for how to get older.
Let’s rewind to birthdays five through ten. Before birthdays came to signify existential dread at the idea of aging, they were eagerly anticipated markers of growing up. There was no better treat than attending someone else’s birthday party, except maybe celebrating your own. As I grew up, cake with sprinkles, rainbow-colored confetti, and competitive games of pin the tail on the donkey set the scene for me and many other smiling, squealing children.
Being born in September, I’ve always been one of the oldest students in my class year. When I used to brag about this feat to my elementary school best friends, I was met with the response: “That just means you’re going to die before us.” I noticed increasing cynicism surrounding birthdays as I got older. More and more people afforded the day little significance, treating it only as a sign that you were slowly inching towards the grave.
I try my best not to buy into this jaded view, and for what it’s worth, I love my birthday. I love being a Virgo. And maybe it’s the former theater kid in me speaking, but I love the attention. However, despite my best attempts to run from it, I have found the hurricane of conflicting emotions surrounding birthdays inescapable, especially after I turned 18.
A week before my eighteenth birthday, my Aunt Clara passed away from cancer. The loss didn’t fully set in for me until my family and I were celebrating my birthday together. I was opening a time capsule that my grandmother had set up for me; everyone at my mom’s baby shower had put in an item representing 2002. When I picked up an envelope labeled “From Aunt Clara,” I immediately put it down until I could dart to my room and read it in private. Upon my opening it, the letter quickly became stained with tears. All I could do was miss her more.
As the next year passed, I could feel myself healing from the loss and beginning to move on. However, when my nineteenth birthday came around, I found myself crying, screaming, and confused all over again. I wondered how I could celebrate when it felt like there was a human-shaped hole in my heart.
Now, as I turn 20, I want to break out of that bubble of grief. I’m not sure that I totally have yet, but I’m comforted by friends who have let me into their grief bubbles, shared cries of frustration, anger, and mourning with me, and let me know that I’m not alone.
No matter what, birthdays are a confusing time. There is no way to truly prepare to turn 18, or 19, or 20, or 30, or 40, or any age that you have never been before. It can be easy to turn to cynicism, to feel frustrated by the confusion of getting older, and to be afraid for the future. However, I am trying not to forget the importance of letting myself celebrate, even after getting out my annual birthday cry.
Kat Struhar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.