This month has been an extravaganza of birthdays and celebrations that seem to be an excuse to write a simple social media line that simply notes, “Happy Birthday (insert so-called friend’s name here)!” I enter the same celebrations with everyone but with a bit more trepidation. It all stems from something my sister-in-law in order to make me feel better about myself this week.
This month is a wealth of birthdays – our own Rene Syler, my own mother and my sister-in-law as well. It was in dealing with that very woman, the sister of my late wife, that she said, “Andrea and I placed unrealistic expectations on the people we love,” after I mentioned that I never got Andrea’s birthday right. Oh, sure, I tried, I had moments of mediocrity amongst the carnage, but I was never able to get the amazement that I attained early in our relationship.
Andrea did have unrealistic expectations. I work in media so there are four months out of the year that are near sacrosanct for an investigative journalist. One of them was November, whose ratings start a few days just before November. Andrea’s birthday was October 30th and as a result, for just about twenty years, I was unable to take a full day to celebrate.
This may seem little. It may even seem a silly thing to be concerned about. For many of those years, I thought that was the case. I had a job, one that I’d done for decades, one that she knew I was doing when she married me. To be upset that I didn’t drop everything on one of the biggest days for television news – my bread and butter – wasn’t something I thought reasonable. But now, looking back at my life, where I am and what has happened, was it really?
Sure, there was the birthday where I did everything in my power: I bought one of the best cakes at one of the most notable bakers in the city, I found a present that replaced a special piece our children broke, I got her family to the house for dinner, I even bought a special dinner. But that same day I was an hour later than I had estimated (ratings, you see, and my boss gave me that “are you really trying to leave now?” glare/diatribe so I was back at my desk until everything I knew was going to go well, umm . . . well it went well). That night, the dinner wasn’t right; the asparagus too rubbery, the chocolate cake not “dark” enough chocolate, the spices in the cake “too spicy” and the present not what she wanted. She threw a fit, blew up in front of her family, my family, and left me sitting at the table with the eyes of two families staring at me.
But was she really in the wrong? Let’s use the benefit of hindsight for a moment. I don’t work for this place any more. They treated me poorly, and even worse two weeks after my wife’s funeral. Now I work for a place that understands my situation and treats me with respect and appreciation. But the previous place likely benefited a bit from my work that day, but it didn’t give me a raise, nor did it lessen the pressure or stress; in fact, it just got worse. My being there didn’t derail some nefarious plan to take us off the air nor did it stave off some drastic problem. It just had me there to make some people above me feel like I was there. I was stressed out there, stressed out at home and likely a disappointment to both.
Then there was Andrea herself. The present was a disappointment because of the one thing she really wanted: me at home. I’ve used the phrase about her before; she was beautifully broken. Andrea had struggled with depression. She was facing disappointment in her parents. She had finally broken through, with the help of myself and some professional counseling. She was dealing with the stigma of being date-raped as a young college student, something that affected our communication and our intimacy throughout a number of years of our marriage. She relied on one person to be the soul she counted on above all others; her best friend and partner, her husband. When I showed up an hour late on the day she was supposed to be the center of attention, how should you feel? It doesn’t matter if I thought my birthday deserved it, or even if the kids thought they deserved it. One day, above all the others, no matter how many times I dropped everything to take care of her when she needed it, one day, her birthday, she actually asked for something and I didn’t see it as important enough.
So this year I was determined to get it right anyway. We celebrated Andrea’s birthday anyway, I gave the kids each a little thing, no extravagance, a small token, on her birthday. I didn’t want us depressed, I wanted to do what I should have every year before and that was to celebrate her, not grieve her. On my mom’s birthday this month, I didn’t just say “Hey, Happy Birthday,” I called her, put all the kids on, and told her I’d bought tickets and we’re visiting her next month.
My sister-in-law told me I’m too hard on myself. This came after I told her I wanted to drive to her and give her the present she deserved for her birthday. She remembers beautiful dinners, nights out at restaurants, all the things that probably should have been the norm. But the years where she wasn’t there, the ones where I should have put her sister first, where she deserved them, that’s what I remember.
So I gave her the bracelet you see here. It’s not huge, nor was it expensive. What makes it special is that it was her sister’s. It’s the one birthday I know I got right. One year, months before her day, Andrea had admired this silver charm bracelet at a silver jewelry shop in Dallas. It had the profiles of kids and their names and birth dates on them. I took the time, bought the charms, had them engraved, and promised to find an appropriate picture for the little frame. She wore it until she was unable to fit it around her wrist after a medical problem caused her to gain some weight. I wanted her to have it not because I was trying to harken back, but to look forward. Those same kids rely on their aunt for help when I’m out of commission or out of town.
So when she tells me not to worry about how unrealistic the expectations were I simply ask a question back: “Didn’t she deserve it?”
What about you? Do you look at the birthdays as so much of a burden? Are you listening to the real reason your spouse asks you for something, or do you see that day as a burden? So often we think we put our loved ones first and get aggravated we have to drop everything on their special day.
But really, are they asking more than you thought? It’s one day, after all, and think about me . . . think about what you’d have if you don’t give them that day. Then ask yourself did you get it right?
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Dave Manoucheri is a writer and journalist based in Sacramento, California. A father of four, two daughters and twin sons, his blog, Our Story Begins is a chronicle of their daily life after the loss of his wife Andrea, in March of 2011. Follow him on Twitter @InvProducerMan.