I squinted my eyes open and, before I fully woke, I saw the sunlight filling my bedroom, brightening my pink quilt, gleaming against the stack of books piled on the floor next to me. My family still slept in the quiet of their rooms. As I registered the meaning, the magnitude of the date, from my twin bed I shouted:
“MOM!!!! Today I’m FIVE!!!!!”
This milestone marked a transition, a blooming of my true self, my coming of age — in a word: Kindergarten. I was maturing from the babyhood of pre-school. Soon I would belong to that big schoolyard I had only watched from the sidewalk below, a place where girls spun upside down on a horizontal bar and tied their own shoelaces. I was overjoyed.
Last week, I turned 49. Exactly 44 years after that memorable birthday, I opened my eyes to a dark room, books still piled next to me, a different assortment of family members sleeping down different halls. Before I registered the date, however, I registered the red numbers on the clock. I had overslept. I needed to make lunches, stat. I sat up, rubbed my face and uttered my first word of that day: “Shit.”
When I realized it was my birthday, however, I made myself start over. I flopped back on my soft pillow and warm mattress, and pulled my (inexplicably not-pink) blanket over me. I took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. In that re-do moment, the memory of my joyful fifth birthday bubbled up.
Instead of seeing myself as an extension of who I was the day before – a woman late to rise, needing to do laundry and walk the dogs and call the vet about said dogs’ (ahem) digestive difficulties and make an optometrist appointment because print had gotten indefensibly small — instead, I saw myself through five-year-old Laura’s eyes. That little girl didn’t ask: What have I accomplished? Shouldn’t my career be more advanced? Shouldn’t I have written more books or won some landmark cases? Shouldn’t my house be less messy, with fewer spiders lurking in corners? Shouldn’t I have forced my kids to play instruments they hated because they’d thank me one day? Is it too late for me to be a Tiger mom?
Five-year-old me didn’t care about any of that. She sang out with joy: Look at this life! You have beautiful children! You have the most wonderful husband! Your big sister? She’s still practically down the hall, a few blocks away! You have nieces who bring you joy! Your friends are true! Your parents? Still here, still close, still loving! Wow. Wow. Wow. What a lucky girl you are.
What a relief, and how forgiving, to allow yourself to be astonished and delighted by your life. To see yourself through loving eyes, as though your five-year-old self had time-traveled decades forward, and was pleased. She could never be as hard on you as your adult self is.
“Beckon the lovely,” instructed author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, before her life closed (you may have read about her here). Our eyes are drawn to what we’re looking for, she explained, so we may as well look for the lovely. It’s not a natural human tendency; it takes practice and reminding. So after my abrupt birthday wake-up, I made myself give thanks. For the mundane to-do lists that tell me I am still needed, for the dull throbbing ache in my shoulder that reminds me I still go to a dance class. For music. For kisses. For wind. For books. For stretching and yawning. For laughter. For the daily brilliant miracle of waking up.
Later that day, I listened to a voicemail message from my grandmother, saved from an earlier birthday. “Laura, I want to wish you a happy happy happy happy happy happy birthday,” she enthused. This was my first birthday without her, and I let myself cry for missing her. In her final year, she had her share of bumps and pains, but she always let her blessings win out. Let music and dancing and laughter and family win out. Asked by a crotchety nurse what her secret was, she told her pointedly, “I’m not a pill.”
She saw miracles in mundanity. She beckoned the lovely, and it arrived full throttle. That’s the legacy I’m trying to honor, and what I wish for you. Or as my friend Chloe expressed, I wish for you “a very happy day that makes you feel special and grateful to be alive and just the age you are.”
When was the last time you felt happy to be a year older? “Mom, today I’m 49!!!!!!”
Oh happy happy happy happy happy happy birthday.