My Improbable Love of “Happy Birthday”

I should get bonus points when I surprise my friend Shoshana: she’s remarkably unflappable. If I’d told her I was getting a giant bat tattoo on my behind, she’d probably nod and say, “Oh, interesting.”

But the other day on the phone, when I told her I love it when people sing “Happy Birthday” to me, she paused for a long moment, and then laughed. “Wow, I would have lost $1000 if I’d bet on that.”

I completely understood why—it even surprises me that I like birthday singing. I don’t generally enjoy people making a big fuss over me. For example, when I turned 40 this year, I had to coax myself into throwing myself a birthday party. It seemed like too much to ask people.

Except that’s crazy talk, right? People do not feel put-upon when you volunteer to feed them cake. They don’t think, Wow, she’s high-maintenance.

Still, I worry that I’m asking too much.

But I really wanted a birthday party because I really wanted people to sing to me. So I had to actually invite them. I took a deep breath and nervously set a date.

A giant group serenade surely qualifies as a “fuss”. But I love it. Sing the Beatles version, or “Las Mañanitas,” or say “Cha-cha-cha” in between verses. I don’t care. While you sing, I will sit there, completely embarrassed, and completely, ridiculously happy.

I think this is why: there’s something about people singing “Happy Birthday” that says belonging.

My Dislocated Roots

Growing up separated from my brother and sister, it was a rare year that my entire family gathered to celebrate my birthday. My late May birthday did not coincide with their visits. I have no memories of my entire family together, singing my name.

This is not to say that I did not have special birthdays. But there was always a sense of dislocation, something I did not recognize until just a few years ago.

I spent most of my life unable to grieve the losses of my childhood; numbness is a really effective coping mechanism, at least for a while. But when I started recognizing how much I missed my brother and sister, how much their absence had affected me, it was the little things that undid me most. The fact that I did not know their favorite foods. Or what my sister’s bed looked like. Or to make them corny cards for their birthdays. It’s the tiny rituals, the minutest details that create absence, grief, and mourning.

And it’s those tiny things—even birthday songs—that knit us together with belonging.

A Habit of Loneliness

I spent so long getting used to not truly belonging to my siblings that the habit of distance is hard to break. I find it hard to ask for help, to remember to share my deepest thoughts and worries with other people. Even when I’m drawn into a group, I often feel like I’m on its outskirts, not truly belonging—even when others bend over backwards to welcome me.

That attitude of not-belonging was so reflexive that for most of my life I didn’t realize it was more a state of mind than an objective fact. Truth is, I’ve lived in the same part of the world and gone to the same church for nearly 30 years. I also just celebrated my 15th anniversary. By most measures, I’m deeply rooted.

So when I felt lonely, I used to assume something was wrong with me. I assumed I was the only one who didn’t always feel connected to other people despite good fortune and my best efforts.

I didn’t always give myself credit for the ways I did connect to people.

Generally, my disconnection is rooted in shame: when I struggle with relationships, I blame myself rather than recognizing that relationships are just hard. I yearn after community that doesn’t always come naturally to me; I sometimes discount the very real friendships I have.

It has helped me a lot to realize that it’s understandable to feel lonesome, given my childhood. It’s not a personal failing, or a sign that I’m unlikeable.

Given my lonesomeness, birthday serenades are the perfect antidote. There’s an intimacy to singing. Also, “Happy Birthday” is loud, and silly, and communal. At my birthday, many of my dearest friends gathered around me, I heard the simple words as a benediction, a blessing for my next year. It felt like a touchstone to counteract the times I forget what abundant blessings I actually have.

How Grief Frees Me to Be Intentional With Connection

It’s funny— recognizing my real grief at the losses of my childhood is an improbable blessing. When I put my habits of mind in context, when I see their roots and feel compassion for myself, I’m much less likely to get bogged down in shame or self-consciousness. I no longer assume there’s something wrong with me when I feel lonely. I’m learning that loneliness is a sign I should reach out to the people I love.

I think I’ve often thought belonging was something I didn’t have access to because of some kind of fatal flaw. Instead, I’m seeing that belonging is an active verb, and that I can be intentional about reaching out to people, rather than fretting that they don’t reach out enough to me.

I can speak my need for silly songs out loud and let the music bless me.

Heather Caliri
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