Crappy Birthday To You

In another lifetime, or so it seems, I worked with a woman (I’ll call her Meryl) who was one of these very well-maintained Main Line (Philadelphia) types. She had impeccable style, flawless makeup, and a certain panache that seemed to be lacking in most of the other people with whom we worked. It wasn’t until she opened her mouth to speak that I realized that her élan only extended to her physical appearance.
It’s not that she was nasty. It’s not that she was particularly stupid. I mean, she wasn’t a brain surgeon or anything (after all, we were working in a law office), but she wasn’t the dimmest of wits. It’s just that she was bland. Boring. I had thought that because we were the only Jewish chicks in the office, we would share some sort of bond, but I’m willing to bet that she put mayonnaise on her white-bread sandwiches and wouldn’t know a knish if it plopped itself in her hand and said shalom.
But for some reason we “took” to each other anyway, despite an apparent lack of anything in common, so when the office birthday list (insert pained groan here) was circulated, I decided that when hers came around in January, I would acknowledge it. I would get her a card and leave it on her desk when she was away from it. The cards I give are usually blank inside, because I know I can write something better than what Hallmark or any other card company can, and also because I can’t stand pre-packaged trite sentimentality, especially when it rhymes and is written in script.
Eventually January presented itself, and I presented Meryl with a card. I wrote something guaranteed to make her laugh. And it did. I don’t remember if she buzzed me or came around to see me, but in any case she thanked me profusely and appeared genuinely touched that someone who had only known her for about a month would not only recognize her birthday but write something in the card that couldn’t be written to anyone else or by anyone else.
I worked with Meryl for about three years, and each year would give her a card. Each year she expressed her surprise that I continued to remember her birthday and thanked me for remembering it and her. She wasn’t putting it on, either. I can spot a phony immediately. Meryl was genuinely touched by my gesture.
When I left that office, I still sent her cards. As always, I took special care to select only the most elegant, unusual cards and to write something special tailored just for her. Within days, I would wind up seeing her on the street, usually during our lunch breaks, where she would wave to me and hurry over to thank me. “I can’t believe you still remember,” she would say. “It’s so nice of you to do this every year!”
This went on for about seven years. Maybe more.
One year I sent Meryl a card, but didn’t see or hear from her. I thought maybe something had happened, and started knocking wood, but eventually I did see her on the street about a month after her birthday had passed. I called to her across the street, and gestured for her to wait for me to cross.
“Happy belated birthday!” I greeted her. “I’m so glad you’re all right. I thought maybe something had happened to you, so I’m thrilled to see you!”
She looked uncomfortable, as if she didn’t know what to say. I began to feel a little awkward, standing there with a smile as frozen on my face as the ice on the sidewalk.
“Listen,” she eventually said, somewhat icily. “About the birthday cards. Don’t do it anymore.”
I stood there, dumfounded. If I were the sort to let my jaw drop, it most certainly would have been stuck to the ice on the pavement. If I wore my heart on my sleeve, it would have cracked, shattered to the ground, and joined my jaw in disbelief.
“I don’t need to be reminded every year about how old I’m getting,” she continued, coldly. “It’s nice that you remember, but I don’t want to remember. So just stop it, all right?”
I pretended I understood. But I didn’t.
I still don’t.
I can’t stand when people say they don’t like their birthdays. Birthdays are the only “holiday” that I can tolerate. I cherish and embrace them because they celebrate the introduction of a new person into the world. And when I heartily wish someone a happy birthday, I mean it. I don’t just say it like a generic Hallmark card. When I say “Happy birthday!” I’m essentially saying “I’m glad you’re in the world.”
To deny your birthday is to deny the process and progression of your life. Trick yourself as much as you want into believing that if you don’t acknowledge the passing of another year, that year won’t be added to those you’ve already collected, but hey &#151 it’s there.
Every year, I send birthday greetings to quite a few people, either by telephone, “snail mail”, or email. Every message personalized. Every message heartfelt. But in the past few years, quite a few of my acknowledgments have gone unacknowledged. The first year I was ignored, I was willing to believe that some of those messages fell by the wayside due to the vagaries of the post office or email. I was even willing to accept that the messages I left on answering machines could have been erased or not passed along by another member of the recipients’ families.
But what I’m unwilling to accept is that people can’t accept the fact that another year (or two or three) has passed. And I’m unwilling to accept that my acknowledgment of their existence in this lifetime and in my life is unwelcome.
So to those people, I say this: Next year, when your mailbox is empty, your phone doesn’t ring, and your email contains nothing but spam, don’t wonder why. I will, of course, remember you, but I will not acknowledge you. If you can’t accept the inevitability of time’s passing, then I have no time for you.
(Any cake I eat that day will be purely incidental.)