They laughed when I said they could sing “Happy Birthday” to me. They must have thought I was joking. Maybe a mature milestone meant I should be over such childish wishes. I wasn’t.
I attach meaning to the ritual of a verse sung by voices of those I love, and it made my heart glad as I prepared to blow out the dozens of candles on the cake on which was written one word in big red letters: Happy.
I’ve attached meaning to much over this lifetime. Sometimes it served me and sometimes not. I attached meaning to the opinions of others when I wish I’d looked in the mirror and asked her what she thought. I attached meaning to conclusions in courtrooms, criticizing myself harshly even when outcomes were mainly about the law, the facts, and the particular judge. I attached meaning to my achievements, and missed a lot of the happy right in front of me along the way.
I attached meaning to events and transformed them into stories so big they seemed real. About who I was as a wife, a friend, a lawyer, a person. The meaning I cemented to these moments was often misplaced.
I married in my 20s. Turned out it didn’t mean happily ever after.
I was divorced in my 30s but it didn’t mean I would be lonely. I haven’t been.
I joyfully remarried in my 40s, and two years later when my beloved John was told he had a terminal cancer with two years to live, it didn’t mean he’d die according to diagnosis. He lived eleven more years.
When a marriage ends, we are vulnerable to attaching meaning.
I don’t know how to pick a partner.
I am going to be lonely.
I’ll never recover financially.
Sometimes the facts are simply the facts. Sometimes the facts are merely a forecast as unpredictable as Nebraska weather. Most importantly, we can decide whether or not to let them rule our future outlook or choices.
Maybe I didn’t pick the right partner the last time, but I’ve learned a lot since then. Maybe I won’t have a spouse, but I will be surrounded by loving friends. Maybe it will take time, but I can take steps each day toward my financial security. Maybe life didn’t turn out like I planned, but I have learned so much and my life isn’t over.
Among many gifts I cherish this birthday (along the black cashmere gloves, the bottle of Italian red wine, and the dark chocolates with hazelnuts) is having lived enough life to see how mistaken I was about many meanings I made up in my head.
As I dance into the next decade of my life, I hope to be more discerning about what I attach meaning to, including the meaning of a number attached to a milestone birthday.