My birthday was a few days ago. But I didn’t make a big deal out of it. No party, no presents. My family understood. It was a low-key day. My boys made me drawings and I love them. We were together and that was enough. Our house guests freaked out when they found out it was my birthday from Facebook later in the day. “Why didn’t you tell me this morning?” she asked. They bought me a cake and flowers. That was sweet. At work, we had coffee cake. That was nice. It’s funny how as you get older, the party and presents, become less important. Maybe it’s because we don’t like to be reminded that we’re getting older.
I am still in the process of thanking each person that posted a greeting on my Facebook wall. Your thoughts and kind words mean a lot! No, really. I wish we could all get together in real life. No, wait…that would mean I’d have to have a party. But seriously… I feel blessed. I am blessed.
You see, the real reason I’ve downplayed every birthday over the last few years is because I didn’t want to be reminded of something. I didn’t want to be reminded about mortality, about my mother who was taken away by cancer at the age of 43. There, I said it. And now, I have outlived my mother.
Growing up in Manila, birthdays were simple celebrations. It meant extended family would be invited to our home to share some pancit (noodles for long life), cake and a few special dishes that were prepared only for special occasions. There were no party themes, just food, family and friends, whether the party was for a grown up or kid. We only had parties until we were seven years old, and even then, these were family gatherings with cousins and aunts and uncles. I don’t ever recall having a party with my classmates actually, not until I was older, when I planned the parties myself. I had one when I turned seventeen and it was the first dance party with boys. You see, I attended a Catholic Girls School from elementary to high school, so this was a big deal. It was a joint party with a classmate whose birthday was a few days before mine. I don’t remember too much about the party except that I had fun planning it and designing the invitation. I can’t even remember who was there besides my classmates, of course, who were attending their first boy-girl party too! Besides the novelty of having boys at our party, we enjoyed having an occasion to not wear our school uniform.
The next year, I was a freshman in college. Having boy in class was now a regular part of my life. Some of them even became my friends. In the Philippines, you get a big party when you turn 18. It’s called a “Debut” and there’s a cotillion and everything. It’s a “Coming of Age” party like a Quincenera. My mother loved to tell the story of how her “Debut” party was held at her aunt’s big house, when she was only 16. It was a big to-do with boys in attendance (yes, she too went to an all-girls’ school) and there was a band that played. And it was written up in the papers. Sixteen, two years earlier than the norm – such a rebel, such a trendsetter, or had she always known she had to live her life to the fullest because she was on borrowed time.
It’s odd to think about it now. I don’t think she knew. She was only 16, full of life and hope. But the truth is, maybe she insisted on having the party early because she was still grieving I think. Her own mother had passed when she was only nine. Maybe she felt she deserved a party like the one she had. Maybe she just wanted to savor life.
Back to birthdays. On my 18th year, we had a simple dress-up party. While most “debuts” are held in hotel rooms and require formal attire. Mine was held at what was then our new house. We had delicious food catered and guests were asked to come dressed up. I wore this long white dress designed by mom. I remember feeling really pretty wearing it. I borrowed my mom’s heels. My friends came and everyone had a good time. Again, it is all a blur and what I remember is mostly from pictures. My mom seemed proud. I was nervous to be hosting all these people. That was the last birthday I’d celebrate with my mother. Seven months later she died. She was 43.
This year I turned 44.