Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Birthday

I hate cheesy, overly sentimental stories that are written solely to make the reader get all weepy, but this is the time of year when TV movies, shows, and radio programs pour on the sappy sweetness. In spite of myself, I have an appropriately heartwarming story for you.

My birthday was this weekend, and I reminisced about past birthday celebrations and tried to pick out my favorite memories. One of my favorites was when I turned 18 in London, and my aunt & uncle took my cousin and me to a Mexican restaurant in Leicester Square, where we celebrated my legal status with sugary margaritas and rides on the carnival attractions outside.

But the most touching birthday was when I was in high school and turned 16 or 17. My Drama Club had a Traveling Troupe that performed at local business clubs and organizations and took an annual trip to Madison State Hospital, a mental hospital where we met the patients and performed in each ward, sometimes with the doors locked behind us. We met shy teenagers who reminded us how lucky we were in our relatively-normal lives, sang songs in dingy rooms of senior citizens who joined in our choreography if they were so moved, and sometimes received marriage proposals from patients who hadn’t seen women in a long time. It was an eye-opening, meaningful trip for us privileged teens.

We happened to make that trip one year on my birthday, and we sang Christmas carols in a ward full of patients who had a tiny Christmas tree perched atop the piano. After our set of songs we mingled and greeted the patients, and someone happened to say that it was my birthday. This was great news to them. A man took a seat on the piano bench and played Happy Birthday while everyone sang to me. I sat on the bench next to him and smiled, surprised by the sudden attention.

Then a woman approached me and held out her hand. “Happy birthday,” she said shyly, and she gestured for me to open my hand. “Happy birthday,” she repeated, and she placed in my hand a shiny nickel. Surprised, I quietly thanked her and then watched her return to her chair by the window where she sat and watched the festivities in the room.

A nickel. It has to be the most selfless, meaningful, valuable gift I have ever received. I kept that nickel for a long time.

This year, to celebrate my birthday we went up to Mt. Charleston to build a snowman. He had curly “hair” on the top of his head, stones for eyes, and a small carrot for his nose, and we left him there in the forest to survey a nice view of snow-covered trees. He is probably covered in more snow by now, and I wonder if an animal has eaten his nose yet.

For my birthday, we also went to a movie, went out for high tea, and ate dinner at an expensive restaurant. But the simple snowman is what I’ll remember.

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