Watching my friend celebrate her birthday the other night evoked a wave of thoughts. Birthdays have always been ambiguous occasions for me. As a child, I was uncomfortable being the center of attention, so being called "the birthday boy" always felt more like teasing than tribute.
There is an infamous family photograph that shows me licking frosting from my own birthday cake well before candles were added and the party began. My guilty eyes are plainly captured in the flash, mortified at being caught in my sneakiness, giving my siblings another effective item to trot out on any subsequent natal day to rile me.
Birthdays can be emotionally troubling, especially because they should be times of joy. So I kept my distance from birthdays for years, letting them pass unnoticed save for cards and some money from my mother.
Thank goodness I overcame all of the childhood angst and began to have memorable birthdays. When I was in my mid-20s everyone in the bar sang "Happy Birthday" to me after word got around. That felt great. I think everyone should hear a rousing group rendition of the birthday song on their big day.
My 40th birthday was a surprise party at a fancy restaurant with numerous friends in attendance. My wife flawlessly maintained the deception until we walked into the place. Our closest friends were arrayed around a big table and greeted me with calls of "surprise!" and hugs in recognition of my milestone year. I felt the acceptance, admiration and love of everyone there that night in a demonstrably genuine way.
All of which brings me back to the local restaurant where six of us shared food, wine and conversation to honor a beautiful friend on her birthday. I thought, "This is how a 50-something birthday should be celebrated."
The adoring husband makes a convoluted toast (it began with the Denver Broncos and wound its way through a few sports metaphors) in loving tribute to his bride for all she means to him. The assembled guests pretend she's younger than she actually is, and anyway, "50 is the new 30." Gifts are opened and appreciated.
Later, at the home of one of the invited couples, candles are blown out after a sincere chorus of "Happy Birthday," and a luscious chocolate cake is consumed. It is just like being a kid on your birthday with the focus and love all for you. Perfect.