I hate to admit it but, as recently as four years ago, I used to dread my son's birthday.
No, it wasn't the dozens of cupcakes I had to bake, or the overpriced, over-commercialized Disney themes, or even the mandatory piñatas that never broke on cue. I dreaded his birthdays because they had become my major milestone marker for the year. My son was born during the final stages of my divorce, so each birthday represented yet another year on my own, struggling to balance a career with raising a child. His birth also coincided with the death of one of my closest friends, Jill.
For well over a decade, Jill and I had always counted on each other for unconditional support, motivation(making that tennis team, finishing school, landing that job, getting that promotion), and, most of all, our ability to find humor in what seemed to be the most horrible situations. And there I was, on what should have been a happy milestone occasion – the birth of my first child -- facing an uncertain future and the most horrible situation of all – Jill’s unexpected death. Welcome to the world, son.
I made it through my son’s first two birthdays by telling myself that by this time the next year “things will get better,” and only occasionally dialing Jill’s by-then disconnected number when they didn’t. But I finally hit rock bottom when he turned 3.
It was the morning after my his birthday and he decided to have the mother of all meltdowns on our walk to daycare. It was so extreme that, if I hadn't already been late for an interview, I would have given up and headed home. Instead, I lost it. Right there on our town’s main street. Both of us were screaming, crying, and fighting over the stroller. The rest of the morning remains a blur, but I’ll never forget the way son’s defiant screams turned to ones of sheer panic as I left him at daycare. I knew he thought he had pushed me too far and feared I was never coming back. Yet ,even as the teachers physically restrained him, I couldn’t take the time to stop and comfort him. Happy birthday, son.
As I rushed to the interview, I realized that once again, things had not gotten better. In fact, faced with what looked like my son’s terrible 3s, job uncertainty in a bad economy, and my first post-divorce broken heart, life was undoubtedly worse. After flubbing the interview, I spent an hour cursing myself as I ripped apart my house looking for Jill’s phone number. “How could I have lost it? Why wasn’t it in my address book? How could I be so stupid?” Then I remembered she was gone. It was like running full force into the side of a mountain. I was left emotionally spent, physically exhausted, and feeling lonelier than I had ever been in my entire life. Happy birthday, son.