Hello. Today is my birthday.
Which means your knee-jerk response is probably something like, oh, happy birthday, Liz! But as I’ve come to learn, a few seconds later, a certain realization will strike and you’ll add: Oh wait, today? Oh. Ohhhhhhhh….wow. Wow. Okay. Wow.
I’ve had 15 years to get used to it and I’m still not used to it. I don’t know if I ever will be.
When you have a 9/11 birthday, especially in New York City, there is no chance of escaping discussion about The Day and what you were doing on The Day and how it feels to have a birthday on The Day.
Those born on the other 364 days a year (with perhaps a few exceptions) take for granted that they can offhandedly spout off their dates of birth with little discussion. You can tell the Bank of America rep confirming your identity, you can tell the Hertz counter agent, you can tell the ultrasound technician–when asked– that you were born on February 10th or October 19th or December 12th with little ado. Me? I need an aside.
September 11th. Crazy, right?
September 11th. Yeah, I know.
September 11th. Bet you’ll never forget THAT one, huh.
September 11th…oh, you don’t say? Your boss’ sister-in-law too? What are the chances?
Of course I know that losing “my day” is wholly insignificant in comparison with what other people lost on 9/11/01. To complain about it seems selfish. Trivial. Stupid. I know. But I can’t help but reflect on my own feelings about it.
Throughout my life, I always looked forward to my birthdays — even as an adult when it no longer meant pancakes for dinner or trips to Rye Playland. I never dreaded aging, never mourned passage of another year. And so, I celebrated September 11 as an adult with gusto–days off from work; personal spa days; six long restaurant tables pushed together to accommodate too many drunken friends. And a cake. Always a cake. With no fruit in it, just the way I like it.
I remember grousing that I was in possession of an American Airlines ticket, JFK to LAX, on my birthday in 2001. I didn’t want to fly across the coast for a meeting, despite the promise of celebratory cocktails with coworkers on the other side. Didn’t my clients know it was my day? Shouldn’t I be excused from work on my day?
The answer was a resounding no. Because, adulting.
And so, I packed my bag that morning, received a few birthday phone calls from family, and dashed out for a last minute bagel to eat on the plane, all while gazing up at that glorious, perfect, cloudless blue sky.
Then the world fell apart.
The small terrace off my tenth floor Greenwich Village apartment until that day had been my happy place. It opened from my bedroom with two exquisite if unfortunately painted French doors, and if at my urging you dared to lean far enough over the Christopher Street side railing, I would joke, “Look! River view!” The perimeter was uneven and jagged, with odd patches of matted astroturf poking out from the blacktop, and a drain hole that clogged with potting soil and the discarded Camels of an inconsiderate neighbor with the next terrace up.
Once, I gathered a dozen of those cigarette butts in a baggie, and marched them up to his apartment. I sprinkled that pile of disgusting, moldy, yellowed butts across his welcome mat alongside a handwritten note: I think you left these at my place.
Laughably narrow, my terrace could host myself and one friend comfortably; two if we all turned sideways in our chairs. Perhaps four if we gave up our chairs altogether and leaned along the rusted, rickety railing. It was on that balcony I planted indigo Lobelia in early Spring, watching it crisp from sun and inattention by July. It was there I sunbathed alone with the New York Times crossword on Sunday mornings, enjoying the rare weekend off from work, pre-kids. It was there I toasted sunsets with friends, made out with The Wrong Men, read and wrote and dreamed and fabricated stories about the people living behind the brownstone windows below.
Then in 2001 the terrace became the place where I watched black smoke billow from the jagged gashes in those towers I had loved.
It became the place where I fielded phone calls from friends and family who must have hit redial a hundred times each to get a line through to New York. Where I stupidly set up a telescope to watch “the rescue mission,” only to instead find shadowy figures waving frantically from behind windows they’d never see the other side of. And where, finally, I saw those towers crumble to the ground.
No advance warning from a newscaster, no heads up, no hey Liz, you might want to sort of close your eyes because here comes the scary part.
My only reaction at that moment was to scream, same as everyone, then to repeat, unbelievingly into the phone to my best friend Caroline, Oh my God it’s gone. It’s gone. It’s gone. It’s not there. It’s gone. It’s just gone. It’s just gone. It’s not there. It’s gone.
Shut the doors, she told me. Get off the terrace and shut the doors and put a rolled up wet towel under the doors, NOW. You don’t know what’s in that smoke.
And that’s when I lost it.
There’s more I could write about the days that ensued–the war zone my neighborhood became, the random people sobbing in the street, the MISSING posters featuring phone numbers no one ever called, the haze of acrid holocaust smoke that hovered in the air for months, the bomb threats, the subway evacuations, the way we all slept with our sneakers on and a bag packed next to the bed on so we could escape at a moment’s notice. But the details depresses me. Still. And I’m supposed to be happy. Remember, it’s my birthday? Happy birthday to me. Yippee.
My father offered to make his way all the way down from midtown to my West Village apartment on foot to celebrate with me that night. Of course I refused; his offer alone was gift enough.
Then it became 2002. It still felt too soon to do anything too celebratory. It seemed disrespectful. Like dancing on someone’s grave. I think I ordered in pizza. Maybe I didn’t eat at all.
But in 2003 I tried to follow the advice of friends: It’s time. Don’t watch the news. Don’t look at the paper. Just try to enjoy the day and take back your birthday.
And so I tried.
I had invited a dozen friends to dinner at a local restaurant. They all seemed genuinely happy to be there, away from the television, away from the makeshift memorials on the sidewalks right outside. But while my guests downed bottles of Pinot Noir, I was getting familiar with the grooves of the bathroom floor tiles that punched into my knees, as I hunched, sweaty and shaking, over a toilet and dry heaved all the food I never ate that day. When finally I made my way back into the dining room, I managed a weak grin in the direction of the table of gay men next to us who cheered, you go girl! You take back that birthday! Whoo! But deep down, I just couldn’t.
I regretted the plans, my optimism, my desire to host and smile and entertain and open gifts and pretend like everything was just hunky-dory. It felt wrong.
And that’s when I stopped celebrating. At least in any way that bore resemblance to years past.
For years, I aimed lower. I made work appointments. I scheduled conference calls. Or I scheduled nothing. Mostly, I tried not to think much in advance about the fact that my birthday was coming up at all.
The anxiety provoked by the possibility of having anxiety about it has, at times, rendered me nearly non-functioning. And anyone who has ever felt debilitated by any anxiety knows what I’m talking about.
A small dinner with family or a close friend or two is as much as I’ve been able handle–no one to have to apologize profusely to on the chance that the shakiness comes back and I cancel en route to the restaurant.
But each year I have gotten just a little stronger. Just a little more able to face the day. And each year — gratuitous ratings-grabbing annual TV “news” tributes aside which I do still avoid entirely — things get more normal too.
Two years ago, I experienced my very first surprise party with some of my favorite people in the world, thanks to Kristen’s stealthy planning skills. It was an absolute joy. Maybe because when it’s a surprise, you don’t have the option of wallowing in pre-celebration anxiety. You just show up, accept the hugs, raise the glass, order more guacamole, and feel very, very loved.
(And yes, Kristen is the best.)
I took that night as an indicator that I’m finally ready to regain some normalcy about celebrating a 9/11 birthday. But there are other signs too.
The dozens of cards and calls and personal emails I received in the early 2000’s have whittled back down to a number closer to the pre-2001 days. The people who would “never forget that birthday again!” have, indeed, forgotten. Funny enough, I find absolute joy in their forgetting.
It seems to me that as acquaintances resume their lives, they no longer need to send me elaborate personalized birthday wishes (all those thoughtful Facebook notes notwithstanding) as a way to inject a small bit of happiness into their day.
The happiness is there on its own.
Isn’t that fantastic?
I think so.
We can mourn those we’ve lost, we can share the two memorial pillars of light beaming up into the sky in with our children, we can honor our brave first responders, we can reflect on the meaning of the day and how it changed us all in some way — and we can still get on with life.
So today, once again, I’m back to the kind of birthday celebration that I’ve learned works best for me: Answering phone calls from family, responding to friends on Facebook, tearing up when I open the homemade cards from my girls that I treasure more than they’ll ever know, enjoying a low-key dinner, and accepting jokes about gray hairs and my new-this-year need for reading glasses (dammit).
If I’m able, I’ll order a big honkin’ guilt-free plate of fettuccini alfredo tonight. Lordy, if you can’t eat that stuff on your birthday, when can you?
And with every 6,000 calorie forkful, not even counting the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top (Keep going. Keep going. Keep going…yeah, thaaaaaat’s it…) I will be happy. Knowing my day is spent with just a few people who love me and expect nothing of me except to act surprised when the cake comes out with a candle on top, I will be happy.
Knowing there’s no fruit in that cake, I will be happy.
I still meet expectant moms from time to time who share, with trepidation, that their due date is somewhere around today and they’d prefer any other delivery date at all. So I tell them I understand. I tell them it’s my birthday. And then I tell them what my dad said to me on 9/11/02, because they may need these words one day too:
It will always be a great day to me. Because that’s the day you were born.