When I married into a Chinese family, I learned that the number four is very unlucky. I thought it was maybe just my in-laws, or maybe it was just a Cantonese thing, but it wasn’t. I learned this one day when I wrote a check (it was the 90s, we still did that back then) at my local Chinese restaurant (Chop Suey Louie’s) and the guy almost didn’t take it because it was check number 444. The problem is that the Chinese word for “four” is a homophone for the word for “death.” I wrote a death death death check.
I’ve been thinking about this because I just had my 44th birthday. My death death birthday. I feel like it’s a good excuse to have a midlife crisis. Because honestly, I don’t want to live beyond 88. That’s when I assume shit just goes to hell. (I reserve the right to change my mind when I am 87.)
My therapist asked me why I hate birthdays so much. She wondered if it was because so many women have such a hard time celebrating themselves or being the center of attention. I don’t like those things as a rule, either, but I don’t think that is it. I think it makes me confront my mortality. It makes me take stock of what I have, and – more to the point – have NOT, accomplished. It makes me scrutinize my skin and lament my sagging jawline.
No, that last one was a lie. I lament my jawline every morning; I don’t need a birthday.
Most of all, however, I hate the let down of birthdays. It is just like New Year’s Eve, except worse, because when the last midnight of December strikes and nothing really happens and you just have to pretend you got some magical satisfaction from closing a calendar year, you are all in it together. When your birthday arrives full of promise and cake shaped joy, it’s just you that has to celebrate the let down. You have to put on a show for everyone who showed up and pretend you wouldn’t rather be crying in a dark room while listening to cello music.
God I’m such a downer.
Since my therapist asked, I have been thinking about the reason I do this to myself every year. The fact that I have all this time to sit around and sulk over my jowls and all of the things I want to do but probably won’t have time to check off my list tells me I don’t have any real problems; I understand that. I’ve accomplished enough. I’ve traveled a bit, I made a lot of art, I’ve loved and been loved. I had a turn with a trim jawline and there are photos to prove it. My turn is over, but I had it! I’m good, I really am. I could focus on being grateful for that.
Meditating on the question, however, I did remember a story. A birthday story that started it all, setting me up for a lifetime of disappointing birthdays.
It was August, the end of summer in the year 1982, and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor was the #1 song in America. It was a Monday, my first day of kindergarten, and my fifth birthday. I hadn’t seen any of the Rocky movies, but I like to think that I was as pumped to go kick ass. Just in a painfully shy little girl kind of way.
The night before, my mom got my outfit ready and we talked about what school would be like. They probably had preschool back then, but I never went. This was going to be my first time being away from my mom for more than a few hours and I felt so grown up, I couldn’t believe it.
“And it’s going to be your birthday!” my mom was saying. “Kindergarten birthdays are the best because all the other kids will sing to you and make you a birthday card… and there will be snacks and games…” Suffice it to say there were big promises made. I. Could. Not. Wait.
Only it didn’t go down like that. First of all, I think I cried when my mom left me at school. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, but I wasn’t happy about this freedom when it came to reality and I was watching my mom walk away. But, as directed, I took my spot on the strip masking tape on the carpet as class started and my teacher, Mrs. Robinson, called us to attention.
“Boys and girls,” she said, “welcome to my class! I’m so excited about all the things we are going to do this year! But that’s not the only reason today is a special day! Today is a very special day indeed for one of you in particular! Let’s all join together and say a very happy birthday to… JAY!”
If you were still hearing “Eye of the Tiger” in your head then maybe this is a good moment to end it with the sound of a record scratch.
I knew not to interrupt. I sat there quietly like the other kids, trying to figure out which one was Jay. Then we sang to him and later we made cards with crayons and construction paper, just like Mom said we would. It took some time to work up the courage and then find a moment where I could walk up to Mrs. Robinson when she wasn’t talking to the class or someone else.
“Mrs. Robinson,” I whispered, pulling on her pink polyester pant leg, “It’s my birthday, too!”
“Now, Rachel,” she said, leading me by the shoulder back to my tiny chair with the orange plastic seat atop shinny steel legs. “You don’t have to make up stories to get attention. We will celebrate your birthday when it comes.” Then she went back to passing out graham crackers and juice.
When I got home, Mom gave me a big hug and asked if everyone sang to me like she predicted. I told her about Jay and that Mrs. Robinson didn’t believe me it was my birthday. Then I went off to play with my sisters and the my presents while my mother made a phone call to the elementary school.
The next day, we were back in our seats on the masking taped rectangle on the carpet and Mrs. Robinson jumped in right away. “Boys and girls!” she began. “We made a mistake yesterday!” As if she and the entire room full of crayon eating thumb suckers were equally culpable. Then they sang and there were cards and more graham crackers. And I played along, pretending to be fine with it, pretending to accept Mrs. Robinson’s non-apology for having accused me of lying. But it wasn’t my birthday. My birthday was over. And even at five I couldn’t pretend otherwise.
You know the worst part? This was back when they would actually hold kids back when they were struggling and Jay ended up repeating kindergarten. So I never got a real kindergarten birthday, and that little dunce got two! I might as well have been born in the middle of the summer, making sure I never had a school birthday! (Those poor tragic dears.)
It’s a funny story, and maybe Mrs. Robinson did feel bad. Maybe in the 80s they taught you never to apologize to your students because that would hand them too much power and then you’d have an “inmates running the asylum” situation, which could get ugly. I bet they teach how to make a proper apology in school now, what with all that equity / safe space stuff we have these days.
And yet, it seems to have left me with some cognitive wiring that connects birthdays to disappointment and reluctance. I feel like I’ve spent 39 years trying to lower my expectations to avoid another let down. It doesn’t really work, though. A jawline always has further to sag. That’s the thing with gravity. It stalks it’s prey at night (and morning… and afternoon) and it’s watching us all… with they eye of the tiger.
PS how great would it have been if the #1 song that year was Mrs. Robinson? I would have to be ten years older and would basically be storing nuts and small wheels of cheese in my jowls by now… but that would have been comedy gold!