For 29 years, February 4 started with breakfast in bed, a candle on pancakes, a few cards and presents, and a softly sung “Happy Birthday.” When I moved away Mom sent a box full of streamers and pancake mix to my new husband with careful instructions. She showed up in my apartment bedroom on my 23rd birthday when I lived alone so that I didn’t wake up by myself.
My parents had balloons delivered to my elementary desk so I stood out all day. My dad took me out of school every year to have lunch at Marie Callender’s (he always offered to take me anywhere, it just didn’t feel like a birthday without Marie) and gave me a big bouquet of flowers I carried around the rest of the day like royalty. Mom created memorable parties every year: One year she and Gramma dressed as maids and served my friends and our dolls a Victorian tea. Another year I had an epic sleepover party wherein my mom pulled out a girl’s loose tooth to cheers and applause. When my husband was deployed and I had no close friends my mom sent money and decorations to one of the few women I knew (I still don’t know how she got her address) and had her throw me a party at Texas Roadhouse (they got my name wrong in the birthday song, but it was still nice to have people around).
I have no qualms with admitting I was born into privilege. Not only on an always-had-a-working-tap level, but into a family who taught me my worth. They wove into my childhood that I was cherished, that I had value independent of my contributions or status. Birthdays were a part of that weaving. My mother’s annual morning greeting was a tangible reminder of the affection and grace and security I lived in every day.
This year I’m turning 30. Which is a thing for me. Because during my early 20s when I thought life was impossible, when my anxieties and undiagnosed neuroses were raging full tilt, someone told me that my thirties would be better. So I made a little deal with myself: if we make it to 30 we’ll be alright. As I calmed a bit in the latter years of my twenties, 30 became the water station on my marathon. It would be some kind of reward for enduring the years of uncertainty and fear and instability as well as a diploma for the various lessons and growth spurts. Whew! Thirty! It’s about damn time!
Then she got sick.
I shared my last two birthdays with her cancer. I was in California for both of them and even though she was in the hospital one time and suffering a new growth the other time, she still made my birthday a thing. The hospital offered an art therapy class so she made me a card. We laughed about how 28 years prior she’d also been in a hospital, but this time she was taking the drugs! Last year though her head was hurting almost constantly she put together a candle-lit pancake and sang me into 29.
We found out right around then that this would probably take her from us in a matter of months. 30 became something I dreaded. I knew she probably wouldn’t be here for it which was – still is – unacceptable. My stomach hurt thinking about it. She celebrated my birth so genuinely and fully every year and really, it’s her day, too – it’s the day that made her Mom and I’m not overstating the fact that she really loved being Mom. It’s kind of our day. It always has been.
So it’s cool. I’ll skip this one. I’ll eat some cake and celebrate Rosa Parks (who was also born February 4, by the way, and did amazing things way after her 30th so maybe I’ll revisit the whole birthday thing in my 50s).
And then something happened.
I was listening to a podcast about suffering (because why not?) in November and one of the featured guests was Scott Harrison of Charity: Water. He told stories and broke my heart with superglue in hand to smash it back together with hope. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard him speak about this incredible organization and the beautiful, literally-life-giving work they are doing.
He tells this story of a 13 year old girl who had to walk 8 hours for dirty water. Dirty water her family needed for cooking and washing and drinking…. Water that could have made them sick, but the only water available to them. One day she returned from her trek and tripped, breaking the clay jar and spilling that day’s supply. Rather than face her mother empty handed the girl took the rope from the jar and hung herself from a small tree.
Over water. Over what I flush down the toilet if it has so much as a spider in it.
This girl took her own life because she could not see beyond a broken jar. How the wet dirt must have broken her. How the splash on her legs must have stung.
This time as I listened to Scott Harrison, a former nightclub promoter, he shared how he began raising funds to provide water to villages like the one this girl lived in: He threw himself a birthday party. He charged at the door and every dollar went toward building wells.
So other people donated their birthdays, too. It became a movement. People acknowledging that they didn’t need gifts for their birthdays, but that this basic human need is lacking all around the world. We talk a lot about the things we wish were different: the injustices and the tragedies we feel a lot of feelings about, but how often do we actually do anything about them, how often do we feel like we can do anything? Charity: water offers a real solution to a real problem.
This idea brought the only spark of excitement I’ve felt since last year about my big Three Oh.
There are plenty of things I want. And anything I want badly enough I can get (I mean, if someone wants to give me a Manito Mansion, don’t let me stop you). My needs are met; my kids’ needs are met and I have good love all around me. This year my birthday is going to be severely lacking something nobody can make up for and treating it the same as every other year would only highlight the fact that she’s gone.
But this. Oh man.
My mother’s life was cut short by a terrible disease with no cure. If it had a cure? If there was some known medicine or treatment or voodoo dance that would have healed her and let her live the life she should have had we would have gotten that thing. We would have emptied accounts and traveled across the world and messed with the space time continuum if it meant saving her.
But there was no cure available for her, for many diseases people find themselves facing. I hope there will be, but in the meantime, clean water just seems like square one. We are still desperately searching for cures to cancer, but the immanent threat facing 663 million people right now? It has a solution; there is a cure. People are dying before they even have a chance to get cancer (which, okay, sounds really morbid, I hope nobody gets cancer again, but really, aren’t we all entitled to living long enough to risk it?).
So for my birthday this year I am asking everyone I know – and everyone they know – to consider donating whatever you might have spent on a gift for me on your best day (and if you weren’t going to get me a gift, I ask that you reconsider ;)) to Charity: water. My goal is that we supply 30 people with water. They estimate that $30 covers one person so that makes it a total goal of $900.
Charity: water is a company of integrity which uses 100% of the donations to fund clean water projects. 100%. They’ll even send us GPS coordinates so we can check out the exact place our money is impacting!
This is a way to do something. To engage with a world I have learned and relearned can be hard and cruel and unfair. Because I’ve also known it to be generous and brave and restorative. It’s a way for me to set this birthday apart and inject it with something good and true. No matter what I do I will miss her that day as I do every day and I’ll grievenot hearing “Happy Birthday” in her voice. But she left me the gift of Being Loved every moment of every day. She might not be here the way I wish she could be, but her legacy certainly is. Using February 4 this way feels right. It feels grown from the soil she laid for me during the 29 years I had her candle-topped breakfasts.
On your birthday you get to ask for stuff. You get to decide what it’s gonna be. It can be loud or quiet, it can be nostalgic or adventurous, it can be silly or sad. I say it’s gonna be a little redemptive. I say we’re going to prevent other people from losing their loved ones, we’re going to mess with the statistics a little bit and give some people a chance to get cancer! (Okay, let’s not make that our tagline. I’ll work on it.)
If you can donate, please do, but if not, please share it anyway! Click here to go to my campaign page and THANK YOU for your support!