Today is my birthday. I may have mentioned this already, but that was hours ago when I was sleep deprived and bemoaning a zit on my cheek.
The zit is still there, by the way.
There were many reasons why birthdays were not celebrated when I was a little kid, but the biggest reason was a mother who couldn't seem to rise above the drug-induced haze long enough to remember she'd given birth at all, let alone the day she'd done so. I do have a picture of myself at the age of three blowing out train-shaped candles on a pink cake, so obviously there was some celebration, but I should say that I wasn't living with my mother by then and that I have absolutely no idea who made me a cake. A social worker, maybe, or a foster parent, or maybe even the grandmother who eventually ended up stuck with me.
That picture is the only record of any celebration of my birthday for a long time. I didn't even know when my birthday was until I was eight. Nobody thought to tell me, I guess, but I never thought to ask, either. I learned my birthday was in August when a woman I called June put a cupcake in front of me at breakfast and said, "Today is your birthday, Lemony. I thought you should know that."
June smelled like peppermint. The cupcake tasted like lemon.
When I was eighteen, I spent a good portion of the summer fighting demons that weren't mine. There was this man, you see, a man with a mind capable of poetry more beautiful than anything Shakespeare could pen, and he was disappearing. For the first time in my life I stopped thinking about what I needed to survive. For the first time in my life something...somebody...
else was more important. All the rules I'd lived my life by...don't trust anybody, don't believe in anything, and for shit's sake don't love
anybody...went out the window.
I was convinced I'd lose vital pieces of me and that I'd never be able to find them again. I was sure I'd live the rest of my life with giant holes in my soul because of the rules I'd broken, but I loved him, and the battle for his soul seemed worth the risk to mine.
My upcoming birthday was totally forgotten. I had more important things on my mind.
On July 19th, with the battle for his soul still being waged, he presented me with a set of stackable rings ala Fisher Price.
"Have you gone mad?" I asked him, but all he did was smile.
On July 20th, I was presented with a doll made from cloth, with a painted on face and yellow yarn hair.
"Have you gone really
mad?" I asked him, but again, all he did was smile.
On July 21st, he gave me a doll house.
"You're starting to scare me," I said, and instead of smiling he gathered me into him, kissed my forehead, and said, "And for the first time I'm no longer scaring myself."
The gift giving continued. Every day it was something different, and every day the gifts were older.
"What are you doing?" I wanted to know.
"Count backwards, darlin'," he said. "From your birthday to the day I gave you a baby's toy, and then you tell me what I'm doing."
And so I counted back from my birthday, and realized that July 19th was 18 days before my 19th birthday, and that he was giving me presents...for my first birthday, my second, and so on, something for every year I missed growing up.
"But why?" I asked when I understood.
"Because I see six-year-old Lemony hiding in a closet without anybody to remember her birthday and my heart hurts," is what he whispered before he danced with me to celebrate my Sweet Sixteen.
I still wear the diamond earrings he gave me for my eighteenth "birthday" and I still weep at the memory of him looking me in the eye and saying, "If only."
I never asked him what he meant. I didn't have to.