“This seems like a lot of work,” my friend Frances observed while watching me blow up balloons in my tiny studio apartment for my birthday party the next day. “Why didn’t you just get someone else to throw you a party?” she inquired. “It wasn’t that simple,” I snapped. At nearly 29 years old, I was gearing up for something that I had dreamed about my whole life.
A birthday party may not seem like a big deal to most people, but a full-fledged celebration is something that always eluded me as a child and adolescent, and even as an adult. More often than not, my birthday came and went with little fanfare, with a few particular years being more of a letdown than usual.
I still remember the nothingness I felt upon turning eight years old. It was a school day in the dead of winter — so already, not much was to be expected in the way of celebration. When my mother picked me up from school that afternoon, the drive home was mostly a silent one. Things went from middling to terrible when, upon entering our apartment, we discovered the electricity had been cut off. Flustered and embarrassed, my mother drove us to Ms. Dede and Mr. Frank’s, the parents of her boyfriend at the time. I sat in the family room watching cartoons while she and Ms. Dede made a cake and my mother wept.
Around the same time, my father had begun dating a woman he would later marry, who had a daughter, Alexis, two years my junior. Born on the Fourth of July, Alexis had birthdays that were always a festive occasion. I was completely enamored with the way her family would do birthday celebrations. Over the years, there were big family affairs on the lake with pizza and store-bought sheet cake, outings to Disney on Ice performances, trips to theme parks, and countless other blowout bashes.
For Alexis’s seventh orbit around the moon, a backyard barbecue was the order of the day. My father dressed up as Barney. Despite being a bit too long in the tooth to actually really want the entertainment of a giant stuffed animal, I seethed with jealousy. Why didn’t he ever dress up as Barney for me? I thought. I like Barney! Or at least I had a year or two prior. A spectator with envy in her eyes, I went into hater mode, whispering to any kid at the party who looked on at the purple dinosaur with wonder and awe that it was all a ruse with my daddy at the helm.
“Why wasn’t I special enough for a birthday party?” repeated in my head for years to come. Low self-esteem combined with an unstable home life didn’t help quiet these whispers, and the question became something of a mantra as the party dream took on a life of its own. To me, a birthday party signified a type of normalcy, security, and love that I craved from my family but rarely felt.
With my childhood slipping away, I made one more last-ditch attempt, requesting a Sweet Sixteen. By that time, I was living with my father and then-stepmother, and they agreed to a modest party in our basement. Part of me was surprised they gave in, but I was happy nonetheless. Finally! I thought I’d get the celebration I’d been waiting for. Ecstatic, I went into high gear, telling all the friends and acquaintances I could round up about my upcoming event. My happiness was short-lived, though; my stepmother soon informed me that the party was canceled for reasons that were and still are unclear. Part of me was crushed, but I’d also figured as much.