My parents were super excited to plan my first birthday party—at least that’s what I got from looking at old photos. They went out of their way to buy and decorate a cake; the pastel pink and white icing in the pictures caught my attention. They prepared enough food for a potluck: in the corner of one photo, my aunt’s paper plate was piled high with grilled hot dogs, pasta salad, potato chips, and pieces of frybread. My mom crafted little princess invitations, threading dollar store ribbon through hole-punched construction paper, one of which I found while looking through my mom’s old keepsake boxes last fall.
I never asked my mom why my first birthday party was so elaborate. I also never asked why we stopped. When my brother was born, he had a similar first birthday. And just as quickly, the festivities were cut short. I honestly don’t remember much from back then: Most of what took place before my sophomore year of high school, including elementary and middle school, have been blacked out with markers. I just know things were hard and that that first birthday was a convenient distraction. Alcoholism, addiction, domestic abuse, financial strain. These things aren’t anything new to me. For as long as I can remember, my parents have been fighting their own battles. But as I paged through old party photos, my tired gaze met crinkled eyes guiding the ends of a wide smile across my father’s red cheeks. I saw pink party decorations and cute frills lining my baby princess dress that matched the swirls of cake icing. Everyone seemed happy at that first birthday party. And it looked nice. I just wish I remembered it.
A friend of mine has the same birthday as my younger sister—September 14. My friend turned 22 while my sister turned 16. My sister couldn’t believe she was already, in her words, “so old.” Over Facetime, I rolled my eyes and laughed. Her little eyebrows furrowed and I could hear my mom snickering in the background. My sister doesn’t like being laughed at, so I tried (halfheartedly) to cheer her up.
“Dude, I’m gonna be 22 this month.” We’re both September children. I rolled over in bed onto my back. “We’re both just getting old.” She thought about it for a second, then shrugged her newly perfected ‘I’m-16-now-so-forgive-me-if-I-don’t-care,’ shrug.
“I guess.” This is her go-to response. Honestly, I can’t fault her for it because I still fall back on it in conversation too.
“You’re getting old. But you’re not that old yet.” She perked up. My mom just hummed from the driver’s seat; they were going grocery shopping. After a couple more minutes of light sibling teasing, my sister seemed less distressed about turning 16. Especially after remembering that yes, she was old, but at least she wasn’t that old (that being 22 and a college senior. Our Facetime call dwindled to an end with the usual “when are you coming home,” “call us again tomorrow night,” and “let me say goodbye to Nicole!” (Nicole being my cat). My sister’s experience with birthdays has also changed, especially since she moved in with our mom. Growing up in a rough situation without birthday intimacy or adults who allowed emotional vulnerability made having a genuine birthday thrown for you feel against the law. Like I’m somehow not allowed to celebrate my birth and everything that came after. My sister said she’s uncomfortable with the thought of growing old, and perhaps she is—just like we all are—but I also think she’s uncomfortable with being reminded that she’s deserving of love and honest celebration of her existence.
I took photos at my friend's birthday party. It was just me and four other friends, gathered round a fancy store-bought cake, shrouded in flickering candle light. The photos were blurry and dark and caught the most ridiculous facial expressions. After nearly blinding a friend with the camera flash, I managed to capture various moments throughout the night: the makeshift Bert and Ernie party decorations, hung with tan and blue masking tape above our kitchen table; the birthday child and their cake, with chocolate chip slices and a curly frosting font; our bowls and cups scattered across the living room coffee table after eating homemade roast and vegetables; and awkward yet lovable photos of friends eating cake, some caught in the middle of chewing and others frozen between bites.
As my own birthday creeps forward, I’m forced to acknowledge my birthday-intimacy-complex (an unofficial term I just coined) and embrace an old discomfort I’ve grown too accustomed to avoiding. Helping plan and host my friend’s birthday party felt empowering, in an odd, caretaking way. It reminded me of being back home and caring for my younger siblings: preparing meals, cleaning our space, and just doing things because I want to make a person feel special. The more I reflect on that day, the more I’m convinced birthdays can become good memories. As I look over my friend’s birthday photos, I’m glad I can remember it. And as my own birthday nears, I look forward to the warm memories I’ll make with current friends and family, because I shouldn't feel uncomfortable accepting love.