The Moment Before Blowing Out the Birthday Candles
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, you look like a monkey and you smell like one, too.”
— The author’s father to the author on May 26, 1985
Birthdays are kind of a big deal in my family. This is especially so during the late spring. It starts with my brother Steven’s birthday on May 22 then mine four days later followed by my grandmother on May 30 then her husband, my late grandfather, on June 4 and then my dad on June 11.
One Himmel tradition is to fill the birthday boy’s/girl’s room with balloons—one for each year and one for good luck. Dad did this while we were asleep so that we’d wake up to jubilance. We grew up living next door to Dad’s parents—the ones with the aforementioned birthdays—so as the birthdays advanced, the balloon population grew and migrated from Steven’s room to mine to my grandparents’ and back to Dad’s. The balloons would shrink and wrinkle or burst during the three-week journey. The hallways and stairways and strip of grass between the rooms and houses were littered with shards of rubber from those balloons which did not survive. The challenge of keeping them alive in the transfers was part of the fun.
I continue this tradition with my wife as I did with every roommate I've ever had. We Himmels take our birthday balloons seriously. One birthday, while I was living in Las Vegas, Dad sent me a package of balloons from Chicago with a note: “Some assembly required.”
We also make phone calls and sing on birthdays. The earlier you call the person, the better. However, if you can’t be the first, it’s best to be the last. Hold off until 11:59 p.m.
And my dad is really good at remembering birthdays. Family members, friends, friends of his kids, ex-girlfriends, ex-girlfriends of his kids. I’ve inherited this Rain Man-like ability. Birthdays are such a big deal in my family that it was a special kind of well-planned coincidence that my Bar Mitzvah was the same day as my grandmother’s birthday, May 30. While the Bar Mitzvah is arguably one of the most pivotal days in a young man’s life, it is certainly one designed to be all about him. However, when my cousins gave a written and rehearsed speech in my honor during the reception, I was ignoring it, busy screwing around with my friends at the table. I thought the speech was for our grandmother. It was her birthday, not mine.
Birthdays are the one day of the year that should be like your Bar Mitzvah. You should be adorned with gifts and affection and speeches in your honor. It’s your day. It’s not your day alone but it’s your day. Yet this celebration of you is always followed by the day after your birthday when you’re as far away from collective adulation as possible. And that makes the day after your birthday the single most depressing day of the year. This is part of the reason I’ve never done cocaine—I’m certain I couldn’t handle the crash.
But birthdays are also an opportunity to seize great responsibility, especially as we get older. That responsibility is presented in the form of the Birthday Wish. As a kid, you were sung to as a candle-filled cake was placed before you, and then you were encouraged to blow out the candles and make a wish. I don’t know what you wished for, but my wishes were either that I’d get the toy I really wanted or, as I got into my young adult years, that the girl I liked would like me back.
But now I’m 38. I can buy whatever toy I want. I’m married and I know Katie already likes me, most of the time anyway. So what do I wish for? Health? Happiness? World Peace? Mike Pence to catch polio? A literary agent? Something less selfish?
As we get older, the number of candles we are responsible for blowing out increases making the task more difficult to do even with a perfect respiratory system. As we pull a breath in through our mouths, down our trachea and into our lungs, we have time to consider the impact of our wish. And that leads us to reflect on the year we just lived and the year in which we are about to embark.
How will we live? Who will we be? What will we do? Can we do better—it’s so easy to do worse. How much will change? How much of that change will be good? How much will tear us down, deflate us like a Himmel June Birthday balloon?
A birthday wish is not something to be taken lightly. This is not a simple loose eyelash or a shooting star you’re wishing upon. This is your birthday wish and you only get one for the year. It needs to count. Take a deep breath. Think about it. Think about your year, your life, try not to let it cause you panic. Don’t lose your focus because if you don’t blow out all of the candles in one go, the wish is void and you will have introduced your new year with failure, which is hard on personal morale
It’s a lot of pressure. Steven lives in Los Angeles now. Maybe I should give myself a break this year and wish that he’s able to mail all of his balloons to me intact for 2018. Because a birthday is no place for popped balloons. That’s what tomorrow is for.