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For the “4” on tonight’s cake we have to go farther back in time. Years before I could even imagine the two of you, I packed my bags to embark on a new life and job in Islamabad. I couldn’t imagine what was awaiting me, but I prepared myself against the unknown with a final, wild veer through America’s retailers stocking up on what I might need. I bought my favorite face moisturizer, cake mixes and taco seasoning, fluoride-free toothpaste and a karaoke machine. I also bought two super foofy eco candles dyed with nothing but beet juice and corn husks at Whole Foods for an exorbitant price. You know the type. I bought “3” and “4” in preparation for my next birthday that was still months away.
But I ended up celebrating my 34th in Michigan with my family on summer vacation, so the candles stayed stowed. After a couple more years they traveled across two oceans by ship, moldered in a storage facility in Washington DC, and then hit the high seas again when we moved to Africa, just waiting to be discovered by Patricia and put to use tonight. Well, one was waiting at least. I have no idea what happened to the “3,” just like I have no idea what happened to my 30s in general and how they could have slipped away so quickly.
How can I explain to you how fast the time goes? I guess I don’t want to. Part of the gift of youth is not understanding how soon it will pass. It’s a beautiful luxury not to consider old age or your inevitable death, or at least to consider it rarely. When your life inches near the halfway point, those thoughts loom a little closer.
But now I have the two of you to keep me young, to push up the volume in the house to full energy, to dance after dinner to Lady Gaga or to whip and nae nae around the living room together. Just as it has been every year since I became a mom, you are my best birthday present. I am so lucky to have you both.
The truth is we’re lucky to have each other. My own mother was 41 when she found out she had cancer, when she realized the life she had with her young family might not turn out the way she had expected. By that age she had less than three years to live, but of course we didn’t know that at the time. I don’t remember how we celebrated her birthday that year, but I hope it was a joyous and happy day. I’m sure there was a cake with candles.
From here on out, I know it will continue to be a wild ride. It’s clear to me now, at age 41, that you can’t plan anything, not really. The items you squirrel away for one purpose get used for something else entirely, or not at all. Those things you wanted so badly, the person you thought you were: this changes sometimes in the most surprising ways. The careful preparation, the shoring up against trouble, the plans you make to protect yourself and your loved ones: they don’t always work, and you will see more people around you struck by tragedy, heartbreak, and disappointment with each year that passes.
So the candles are important, wherever you can find them. From the spark of the flame touching each wick, to the wisps of smoke lingering after they go dark: it is a ritual of hope. We don’t know what the next year will hold, but we can still make a wish, faces lit with the rosy glow of hope and expectation, ringed around together rooting for the same things. We celebrate when we can, and we do it together: that is the important part. I hope I am teaching you this every day, and that you won’t have to wait until age 41 to find out how important it is just to be, not to prepare–just to hope, not to fear. I am still learning too. I love you guys.