Last week I celebrated my birthday. For as long as my family and friends have known me, they have known how much I love this day. They know that it’s intensely personal and very significant to me, but no one really knows why. Why it means so much. Why I used to wake up every morning on the 11th August with a shiver of anticipation and a burning heat in my heart. Even my husband of 20 years doesn’t really get why my birthday is so ‘big’ and why I sometimes start celebrating a week before and continue a week after the actual day. He doesn’t understand why the waitress at my favourite coffee haunt needs to know it’s my birthday, or why I randomly break out into singing ‘For I’m a jolly good fellow’ to myself. He doesn’t understand why I feel so special.
And the reason is simply because my Mom made it special. She made me special. And she made me grateful. From the time I can remember birthday parties happening, I remember getting how big a deal it was. The party and everything that went with it was important to my Mom, because the day of my birth – and my brother’s - meant everything to her. We were celebrating the day her child had been born...when she so easily could not have. She understood that an unwanted pregnancy could have ended in a different choice, but I was chosen to be born, and I was given to her as her daughter. And she was eternally grateful.
Every year, from the time I can remember celebrating my birthdays with unabashed joy and excitement, I remember my mother reminding me to ‘say a prayer’ for the girl/woman who gave me life and then gave me up so that I could come home to the family that God had chosen for me. Home to her. My mother instilled in me a special kind of gratitude to this girl/woman who not only gave me the gift of life, but also gave me the gift of an extraordinary, special life. When I became a teenager, every year on my birthday I would write this girl/woman a thank you letter – short and sweet – just to say, ‘I’m living on a farm in Pretoria with incredible parents, who are so generous of spirit that I know that I am so blessed that they’re mine. I know I got lucky. And I am grateful. And I am happy.’
I stopped writing thank you notes when I was 17, but every year since - on the 11th August – I remember. I remember to be grateful. And I always will.
The result of all this love and gratitude and specialness was always abundantly laid out right there, at the party, covering our entire old dining room table. Multi-coloured syrupy popcorn that had been piled high in a mound on brown paper in the lounge two days before, now overflowed large Tupperware bowls on either side of the table. Plates of my mother’s oatmeal crunchies, chocolate eclairs and marshmallow rice krispie squares were interspersed with an abundance of ‘Pink Sweets’, Sugus, Flings and Zoo biscuits. And in the middle of it all there was me, standing on a chair in front of an amazing cake that my mother always made herself (except for the times I wanted an ice cream cake), filled with wonder and delight. That cake told me how much she cared. There was the Humpty Dumpty cake when I was five and the horse cake when I was 11. And when I was eight or nine, there was a doll cake that went with the beautiful handmade furniture which my Dad had made me as a birthday present that year. My Mom had sewn curtains, mattresses, and bedding for the furniture, and filled the miniature cupboard with clothes for my dolls. Like I said, incredible parents and so generous of spirit. Knowing my Mom had stayed up until three that morning, doing these things - trying to finish this cake for me - reinforced everything I already knew. That I was special. That her kids were everything.
So when I still wake up every morning on the 11th August with a shiver of anticipation and a burning heat in my heart, it’s because I remember. I remember my Mom and my Dad. I remember the birthdays that have gone before and the amazing parties that celebrated them. I remember the girl/woman who gave birth to me. And I remember that my life matters. Because I could so easily not have had one at all.