What Makes a Great Birthday

Yesterday was a big day for me. I celebrated a birthday. It wasn’t a milestone year or anything, but it turned out to be a great day.

It actually started the day before my birthday. I received a card from my parents that reminded me of something. It reminded me that other people don’t see you the way you see yourself. Lately, I’m not sure  how well my self-image has measured up to reality. It’s been a rough year, career-wise, and keeping a positive attitude has at times been difficult. The card reminded me that a life is an entire body of work, not just a snapshot of the last few months or years.

Then yesterday, my wonderful wife of 13 years got up and made me breakfast – eggs, toast and bacon. A couple of things about this. First, you need to understand how much my wife 1) likes to sleep in, 2) doesn’t like cooking or cleaning up after cooking, and 3) rarely cooks a salty, greasy treat like bacon for the family. It was a great way to start the day.

After breakfast, my son wanted me to come downstairs so he could give me my “present”. He has been taking piano lessons, and when he saw that one of the songs in his book is the main theme to “Star Wars”, he decided to work ahead and, knowing my fondess for the space opera, play it for me on my birthday. Kids, pride is a great gift to give your father.

A bit later, my uncle posted a quick little Facebook message meant specifically for me, in honor of my birthday. It was just a little joke, but it showed that he’s been paying attention to my likes/dislikes and sense of humor, and it made me smile. I appreciated it.

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When life gives you rain, dance in it.

Next came the 5K. Two of my kids have been practicing with a running club for the past few months, and were able to participate in this 5K (or half 5K, if you wanted to go a shorter distance) free of charge. Since I’ve been training to get into 5K shape, it seemed like a good time for me to go ahead and run it as well. Best yet, it was only about 2 miles from our house. What better way to celebrate getting older than doing something that makes you feel younger? As we were driving to the park, it started raining. This was not just a spring shower, either, but a full-out rain. I had three of the kids, but no umbrellas or raincoats. It was supposed to be 72 and sunny all day, so this cloudburst was a surprise. The temperature seemed to drop about 10 degrees while the rain was falling. Knowing that behind the rain was good weather, the race was postponed until after the downpour. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt made of very breathable material designed to release heat from your body, and to be honest, was starting to feel a bit miserable. The thought crossed my mind more than once that perhaps we should just jump back into the car and forget the whole thing. In all, we spent about 45 minutes standing under a tree (which wasn’t doing much good) in the driving rain, all huddled up to preserve warmth for the smallest of us.

Despite the weather, the live band in the pavilion continued to play some classic rock favorites from the likes of John Mellencamp and others. At one point in my cold misery, I happened to look up to notice that my beautiful, free-spirit little daughter was dancing in the rain directly in front of the pavilion as the rest of the participants gathered under tents or umbrellas. “Dancing” is kind of misleading in her case. She was twirling, jumping from side-to-side, and clapping while the sky fell all around her, whipping her wet hair around in the process. It was another stark reminder to make the best of the situation. I suddenly didn’t feel quite so cold.

As the race started, I could almost see the clouds parting in front of me. Rounding the first turn, I saw my daughter, who was deliberately aiming for every puddle on the road. As I passed her, I did the obligatory “dad thing” and told her not to soak her running shoes, an obviously unenforceable command. She was running the 1/2 5K (one loop) so I figured that I would not see her again until I finished. Up ahead, my son was keeping a good pace with some of the leaders, and occasionally looking back to see where I was. Despite all of his running practice this fall, he’d never run a 5K and I figured he would run out of steam before long. However, as we made the 2nd turn, he was still a bit ahead of me. I caught up on the straightaway, but he was running directly next to me and seemed to have plenty of energy, occasionally telling me to slow down my breathing and talking much more than I would expect of someone in a race. As we passed the water station, he made a big, sweeping gesture with his arms (like a baseball umpire signaling “safe!”) and said to the volunteers in a loud voice “REFUSE!”.

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The old man, and the little man, at the finish


The rest of the race was very similar to this. I felt really good and AJ was right next to me the whole time. I found out later that I kept up my pace for the entire race (less than 6 seconds difference between my first and final 1/2 miles), and as I finished in under 30 minutes, there he was, finishing right next to me. It was a great race, and a great moment. I was so proud of him to run so hard for that period of time. I’ve always told my kids that I don’t care how well they do in sports, but I do want them to give it their best. This was obviously a best effort for him, and much of it was because of his desire to run the race with me. To be right next to his dad for the whole thing, both to support me and to gain my approval.After I’d had a chance to catch my breath, I realized that my daughter wasn’t standing with the rest of the family. I asked my wife if she had seen her, which she hadn’t. We came to the conclusion that she must have gone around for the second loop instead of stopping after one. This indeed turned out to be the case, as she was confused about the distance and apparently got caught up in the crowd yelling to her at the finish line: “keep going, one more time!”. We split up to go find her. I started at the finish and worked my way backwards, and my son took a shortcut around the block. He was the first to find her, and when I came up on them, he was running beside her just as he had with me, encouraging her along the way. I joined in and as we rounded the final turn, I asked her “did you know you were supposed to stop after one? You’re about to finish a 5K!” She looked up at me with her mouth wide open, as if she hadn’t realized the significance until that moment, and then just started laughing. She didn’t need any more external motivation from that point on. The little girl who was nervous about finishing a mile had just “accidentally” run three.

The tradition in our house is for the birthday person to choose the dinner meal. I chose lasagna and triple-chocolate cake. It’s something that we all like, and was a good for replenishing carbohydrates after the run. Once again, my wife spent a lot of time in the kitchen (her not-so-favorite place) to prepare the meal.

Afterwards, we gathered in the family room to open my present. I’ll be honest, in years past I would still (even at my age) look forward to the “getting” part of my birthday. I enjoy gadgets and shiny, blinky things as much as the next guy. But this year it really didn’t seem too important. My family had shown me so many things over the course of the past 48 hours – how to step back and reflect on yourself, how a simple gesture like making someone smile can change the outlook of a day, how to make the best of any situation, how to do things you don’t particularly enjoy for the sake of serving others, how to support those you love through difficult times, how to spend time together no matter the cost, and how to accomplish something you didn’t even think possible when the day began. Next to these intangible gifts, the shiny thing in the pretty box was fairly anti-climatic. Perhaps I’m finally growing up, after all.

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