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35 birthday

dear aidan,

At 3:38 this morning, you turned 35. So today is a birthday. You are not a big birthday person. The day has always been edged slightly in sadness, in rawness, in dread. You are still trying to figure out why. Is it that you are uncomfortable with the attention but also crave it? Is it that you are worried about people forgetting? Is it that you are, deep down, afraid of age, aware of mortality? Is it that October 5, tomorrow, is the day Dad was diagnosed?

No matter. Since having your girls, birthdays are mostly happy things. They love birthdays so much and so you have no choice but to love them too. This morning, you opened your eyes and your middle girl was by your bedside, in her nightgown, clutching her orange Halloween owl. Happy birthday, mama, she said, climbing on top of you, flattening her body on yours. And then you heard the baby on the monitor, crooning your name. Mommy. Mommy. You slipped out of bed and went to get her. Pulled her out of her crib she will leave behind soon. It's Mommy's birthday, you reminded her. Mbirthday too? she asked, her face one big smile. And you hugged her because it was a tiny gift that she didn't get it yet, that she is still too young to understand.

Downstairs, you were met with little girl squeals and a pile of gifts and cards. Everything was wrapped loosely in owl paper. Your girls made you brightly colored picture frames and this struck you as profound because you are in love with photos these days and they picked an owl pillow. On its back, words are stitched: You are loved.

You are loved.

Your man, your good and thoughtful man and best friend, he made you some coffee and you sipped it. And you opened his gift. An espresso-hued leather jacket. You tried it on over your pajamas and it was perfect. I love it, you said to him. You know me so well. And the morning proceeded to be a comedic disaster. The girls argued about the clothes you had picked, refused breakfast, whined up a symphony. A garbage truck blocked the street, so the school bus stopped on the corner instead. The baby smeared peanut butter all over her face and hair right before heading off to her peanut-free school. Five minutes after everyone left to head to preschool, they returned because Middle Girl needed to use the potty. It was that kind of morning. Nothing remotely glamorous. But perfectly indicative of where you are now.

Where are you now? You are in this exquisite and confusing middle place. In this world of being totally settled and totally at sea. You are madly in love with your creatures and say thank you every day for the family you have created, and come from. And yet, you are struggling with things, things that you know in your heart are good. You are learning that certain things do not work for you and must be limited: alcohol, social media, negative people. You are learning that certain things light you up: writing, reading, listening to people's stories, telling your own.

You are still trying to figure it all out.

Sometimes, often, you are too hard on yourself. When you do not write enough on any given day, when your writing doesn't sing, when you forget an appointment, when you gain a pound or two. You are intent on shedding your perfectionism, but it lingers and paralyzes you. You must try to remember that you do not need to do it all, all at once, and perfectly. This is your life. It is not a paper or an exam. There is no A+ waiting on the other end.

You write your girls letters on their birthdays. You write them because you believe it important to stop and step back and try to see. You want to capture who your girls are at that moment in time, in that year. You want to hold on, to remember. And you are realizing, more and more, that it's important to do these things for you too. The stopping, the stepping back, the seeing. The celebrating.

Remember that story Dad used to tell you about being on the airplane together when you were a girl? You were 10 or 11 and you leaned on his shoulder and looked up at him and asked him a question: What is self? And he smiled. Maybe you actually remember his smile or maybe it's a figment of your imagination, your longing. No matter. You were then, and are now, an asker, a seeker, a philosopher like he was. You wish more than anything that he were around to see this, to see how thoughtful you have become, how you've become more serious, more devoted to asking the big questions, but he isn't here to see you today or to see the sweet girls who have his eyes. That's hard.

Today will be a good day. You will publish these words and you will get dressed and meet Mom. You will take a taxi to midtown and you will shop and then have lunch. It's a ritual that you love. At lunch, you will talk with Mom and you will laugh, and you will eat whatever you want because this is your day. And, tonight, you will have dinner with your man and your girls. It will be another happy disaster. There will be dancing in the wooden booth and the girls will refuse their food and beg for ice cream and you will feel that swell of exasperation and deep, abiding love.

This is your life.

Man, it's a beautiful life. It's messy and mangled and chock-full of magic. And it's yours, Aidan. All yours.

On this day, on this birthday, this is your biggest, wildest, most precious gift.

Happy birthday, kid. Keep at it.

love, aidan

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