I’ve never really liked having birthday parties for myself. I like going to parties, but only if I’m not its cause or focal point or host, perhaps because I am a lazy person and do not like preparing for parties but prefer just walking into a room full of people, giving my gift to the birthday person, making a beeline for the buffet, and then eating while talking to people about other people we know who are not at the party.
I remember a birthday party I had when I was five, when I had a blue cake with a swing on top of it made of wooden sticks. In the photographs I was wearing a red and white jumper. I think it was also the first time I tried to cut the cake myself. But all the other birthday parties I’ve had I cannot remember anymore. They have all seemed to blur into each other and then had blended further into a huge glob of undifferentiated parties and reunions and get-togethers in my memory. When my birthday is coming up I generally steer clear of people I'm not particularly close to so they won’t be reminded of it. It’s enough for me to be greeted a happy birthday by the handful of the people I love, and if I don’t get greetings or cards or even gifts from people I don't even think about once a week, I wouldn't really mind. My birthday for me is something I prefer to spend like any other normal day, without any special lunches or dinners and no blowing of cakes, but happy and comfortable knowing I’m a year older and I’m fine.
My mother, on the other hand, always accidentally finds herself by my side with a cake and candles on my every birthday, but of course not before dragging me to church to hear mass. This even after I have already specifically requested her to not do it anymore. She has always told me to go to mass because she doesn’t know yet that I have been an agnostic since I was about 19. And I always end up going, because I after all, I was living under her roof, and if I didn’t go to mass and have a party I’d never hear the end of it.
It was easier when I moved to Manila. I didn’t have to go to mass anymore, although the reminders to go to church had been just as consistent as ever. I do remember that there was one year when I had to work late in Camp Crame about two years ago and my mother was in Quezon City with my brother and sister and asked me to come over because we had to talk about the new business venture that my Dad was thinking of going into. I told her I had no mind for business and that I had a heachache so I would not be of any help, but then she told me she needed me to write something for that, and so I told her maybe we could talk about it the next day because I had too much work to do, and I have been writing the whole day anyway. She said she was leaving for Bicol by dinnertime and would not be back for weeks. I told her we could just talk about it on the phone. She said she had documents to explain to me before we can even begin talking about it. To cut the long story and the extraneous and winding conversation short, I drove to Quezon City, was dragged to church, was dragged back to my sister’s apartment, and there saw the cake with candles. Nobody talked about my Dad’s business venture. And of course she never had a trip to Bicol scheduled that night.
I only remember this particular birthday because of the extreme exhaustion that I felt after realizing that I had been wheedled into yet another mass and party. I felt more exhausted than I usually feel after writing 10,000 words in 16 hours non-stop.
My happiest birthday was when I turned 13. Months before my birthday I was so excited at the prospect of finally becoming a teenager. I remember wishing that I would be 13 forever, because it sounded like such a magical age. I also liked turning 30, although a couple of months before that I was a little afraid to enter my thirties with nothing to show for it, but on the day itself, I felt fine, happy, comfortable, and honestly, a little proud. And I’m sure, of course, that there was a church and a party, although I, in true antisocial fashion, forget now where it was held and who went, much less what the priest said.
Now I’m 31. Perhaps 31 years of going to masses and birthday parties was what I needed before I could finally ask my mother to stop making me hear mass and have parties. Thus I was able to spend my birthday the way I wanted it. In old Manila, sitting in a corner in Quiapo with a notebook and recording all the details I saw, going to a vintage fountain pen store in Escolta to start the search for a vintage fountain pen for my dad, browsing the books in Solidaridad Bookstore in Padre Faura, and then finally spending the afternoon and evening in Intramuros, writing and having coffee in Iluztrado Restaurant, walking along the top of the ruins, and then treating myself to a nice quiet dinner and then more coffee while reading. It was a good day, which started well – my man called me at 4:30 in the morning, my son at 7:45, and my father at about 9:00 – and ended well.
The party, though, I still could not escape. I had to go to a second dinner somewhere in Greenbelt, where I never go to because parking is like going through a warp zone and I keep getting lost among the stores and cannot find myself in the areas beyond the fountains. But thankfully, the dinner did not take long, and I even enjoyed it a little. There was just my mother, my brother who came in later than me, and my sister and her boyfriend.
Maybe it’s because this party was so recent that I remember it – though I still don’t know exactly where we went or what I ate – or maybe because there were just the people closest to me there. Maybe it’s because I could see their effort at not being too birthday-party-ish for me that night. Or maybe it’s because I’m a little older that some things about me are already changing, and now seem to take on more resonance than others. Perhaps it’s not the parties we have that make our birthdays but the company we keep. Maybe it’s not so much the physical presence of loved ones but the proximity of the heart. Maybe it’s not even the birthdays but the everyday living, the day-to-day glory and the day-to-day madness that make up real life, and the knowledge that everything will be okay, that makes the birthdays feel like a nice reward no matter what happens -- church, party -- on that day.
I’m not looking forward to throwing birthday parties for myself here and there in the years to come, but I can now see the merit of turning a year older. In the propensity to place people and events into categories and labels, I have forgotten that boundaries and differences matter only up to a certain point. Sooner or later, they all home into one single heart.