Today is my birthday.
I’ve never been much to celebrate in a big way. There are several reasons for that, the first of which is that being born near the 4th of July (or any major holiday) ostensibly means most people are out of town on your day of celebration. As a kid, I only wanted to celebrate on the actual day of my birth. It never made sense to that kids would have their parties days in advance, weeks after, or during the weekend on either end. For me, it was all or nothing – July 6th or bust.
Summer birthdays rarely benefit from the group well-wishes from class parties. There are no cupcakes at lunchtime or decorated desk or locker. Most people who know me know I much prefer intimate conversations and small group dinners to fancy extravaganzas of small talk (though I can do fancy, too!). After several glorious decades on this planet, I am totally okay with that. .
My first distinct birthday memory is when I was seven or eight years old. I remember sitting on the back deck of our rural Connecticut ranch home, watching a small table of friends sing an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Others might have been lost in the moment, but I was looking at my mom, who was getting ready to cut slices of frozen Minnie Mouse ice cream cake that was likely super over-priced for my parents’ budget. The cake was filled with the unhealthy confectioner’s deliciousness that my mom would otherwise avoid. But hey, it was my birthday.
I remember thinking about the effort my mom went through to try and help me have a real American birthday – complete with pin the tail on the donkey, Disney themed decorations and thoughtfully designed goodie bags. My parents immigrated to the United States just a decade before, and for many reasons I can safely deduce my mother never had a celebration like this one when she was a child. In that moment, I could sense she was tired. In my mind, I was like: Wow, this took a whole lot of work.
There was something special about that birthday, too. Weeks before, I asked my mom if I invite could Beth, a friend who had been in my class since preschool and had recently undergone extensive brain surgery – half of her brain was removed – at the hands of current HUD secretary and former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson (oh, how small the world is…). My mom’s reply was quick and affirmative, “Sure, of course.”
I was so excited to hear Beth could come to my party. When her mom called to RSVP, she started with an apology for her delay, explaining, “I am sorry it took me a few days to get back to you. We were supposed to be in Martha’s Vineyard but moved some things around because Beth really wanted to come to your birthday. It is the only one she’s been able to go to all year.” I still think of that conversation and how much it meant to me that she came.
Beth’s story gained national attention for many reasons, one of which is her amazing friendship with Mr. Rogers, who visited her bedside at Johns Hopkins, and she was most recently profiled in Atlantic editor James Hamblin’s book, “If Our Bodies Could Talk.” She’s in good health, and is a wonderful writer – and when I asked what she hopes to do next, she was quick in her reply, “I want to become a world famous author and speaker.” In a time when we desperately need more stories of positivity and hope, Beth’s story and message is an important one.
In the last few months, I’ve seen more and more videos and clips of Mr. Rogers – especially this one from when the 1970s when public television was under threat of losing funding – and every time I think of Beth. We often see the public figure without fully knowing who they are in real life – and from what I have heard over the years, Mr. Rogers certainly was incredible. I truly hope more and more people will hear Beth’s story, in her own words. Her vision of kindness, healing, family and humor is a powerful one worthy of reflection for kids and adults alike.
Last week, nearly thirty years later, I had a lovely dinner with Beth and her parents on Martha’s Vineyard. Her parents look the exact same as from my childhood, and Beth and I are both just a little older. Three of our birthdays – Beth, mine, and Mrs. Usher’s – are all within a week of each other, and it was a wonderful way to celebrate another year around the sun.