A few years ago, I invented something called The Birthday Tradition. Despite my opinions on my birthday (namely, that it is the best holiday of the year; that I am allowed to be giddy for a week or so before and depressed for a week or so after; that “It’s my birthday!” is a respectable response to any question and/or comment directed at me in the time period listed above), I did not actually institute the Tradition on my birthday, but on my boyfriend, Zack’s. I’d already moved to New York by then, and he was still living in San Francisco, finishing up a building project at his job before joining me. I came back to San Francisco for the holidays and for his birthday. Feeling mushy (booze, old friends and too many gingerbread men, aka crack, will do that to me), I began espousing my love for Zack. “He’s one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met,” I said, “but he also can talk about anything and everything, for hours, even if he’s just humoring me. He looks super sexy when he’s rock climbing and has successfully taught me how to build IKEA furniture. Kinda.”
“Well,” our friend Matt jumped in. “If we’re doing that, I wanna say why I think Zack is awesome.”
“Me too,” said our friend Colette. “You guys can’t get all the credit when he ends up crying.”
And the Birthday Tradition was born.
We do it every birthday, and every person is required to say their bit, even a friend’s new girlfriend or boyfriend who met the birthday person moments before. There’s a lot to love about people, whether you’ve just met them or ate their crayons in kindergarten. That’s the point of the Birthday Tradition: we so often think the things we love about people, little or big, but rarely actually say them. Sometimes it’s nice, surrounded by loved ones, to be reminded of why the love is there. It makes it that much more concrete, and that much harder to break.
We’ve done the Tradition for every birthday I’ve attended for the past three years. I’ve said I loved a person’s brilliant sock collection, their offbeat sense of humor, their impeccable sense of self, their cooking and their party planning and their unfailing kindness and their loyalty and their karaoke skills. Which is why I was so devastated when Zack told me, as his first birthday in London was rapidly approaching, that he thought we should skip the Tradition this year.
“But why?” I said, extending the final syllable, clutching my hands to my cheeks and sliding to the floor writhing as if a hot ball of fire were about to burst from my belly button.
“Most of the people coming out are friends from grad school,” he said. “It’s kind of like asking your colleagues at work to say something. I think it’ll be more awkward than fun. Also, the British aren’t really mushy like that.” (This is true: I’ve witnessed one marriage proposal in England. It took place in a pub, and the matter of fact question was followed by fish and chips)
Begrudgingly, I accepted Zack’s wishes. That night, though, as we readied ourselves to go out to the pub in which we would ring in his birthday, I was struck by regret. Zack, of all people, needed the Birthday Tradition. I brought in our roommate, and together the three of us, with our two cats as witnesses, did a mini Tradition. It was the smallest the Tradition had ever been, but it was lovely. Then we went to the pub and got drunk.
As the next day, Zack’s actual birthday, drew to a close, we ate cake at our flat, and watched as snowflakes the size of my nose slowly blanketed the world around our windows.
“It was a good birthday, right?” I said, snuggled up to Zack on the couch.
“It was,” he said. We’d just talked to his parents in California, and his voice, like them, was far away. A birthday is a time filled with love, but it’s often that kind of love that makes you miss the people you love the most. I snuggled in closer, and squeezed him hard.
And then the email came.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ZACK, said the subject line, and in the email a single line of message, the word “Love” followed by the names of all of the New York friends we’d left behind. He clicked open the attached Powerpoint and found, on the first page, the words, “Happy birthday, Zack! We are so bummed that we can’t celebrate with you this year so the Birthday Tradition has gone digital. We miss and love you, The Gang.” Next to it was a not so flattering picture of Zack asleep with a pizza box on his belly.
Every page was made by one of our friends, and every page featured a heart felt message and several embarrassing photos, many taken years ago, reminders of how long the friendships had endured. Our friend who is currently in Thailand even submitted his response, and a lump formed in my throat as Zack clicked through page after page of messages of love. Zack, whom I’ve seen cry less times than I can count on one three fingered hand, blinked back shiny tears.
It is not the birthday of the Birthday Tradition, but nonetheless, I would like to say why I love it. I love it because the more positives in the world, the better. I love it because it makes me feel grateful for my friends, and reminds me that they are the buoys that so often keep me afloat. I love it because it’s easy, and simple, and kind. I love it because I love to see people blushing, and I love it because it’s fun to watch the newbies squirm. Mostly, though, I love it because it could show, even from an ocean away, that the love was still there, steadfast and strong.