On the morning of my twelfth birthday I awoke to find a piece of string stretched across the length of my bedroom to where it disappeared under the crack of the door. Next to the string was a note that read “follow me.” I obeyed the instructions and followed the string out of my bedroom and down the hall past my parents’ room. The trail continued down the rickety staircase on through the long downstairs hallway past the kitchen and out the front door. Outside, the string led me beyond the patio and out to the driveway toward the garage. There the string floated upwards to where it was tied to the net of a shiny new basketball goal with a red ribbon affixed to the backboard.
I had no interest in sports and wondered why my parents would give me this useless gift rather than the tap shoes or New Yorker subscription I had asked for. I looked back toward the house and saw my parents staring at me though the window next to the front door. They both wore self-satisfying grins, proud of the birthday treasure hunt they had concocted. I gave them a smile, the same one I wore in each yearbook photo, teeth clinched together, lips wide apart. It was a grimace that communicated, “I am very uncomfortable right now.”
Other than the basketball-goal fiasco, most of my childhood birthdays were glorious affairs filled with friends, devil’s food cake, and presents that didn’t involve athletic coordination. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that birthdays, for lack of a better word, suck. Turning sixteen is awesome. Turning forty-two is, well, mundane at best. Whereas I used to look forward to my birthday, I now dread it and try to ignore it. Yet the older I get, the intervals between birthdays seem shorter and shorter. I barely have time to grow accustomed to being in my mid-forties before I’m suddenly in my late forties. At this rate I’ll be sixty in the blink of an eye. It’s as if I’m riding a runaway horse toward an assisted-living facility.
Last week, on my forty-ninth birthday, my mother gave me a hundred dollar bill. No card, no note, no thoughtfully selected and delicately wrapped gift, just cold hard cash plucked directly from her purse. “Here, buy yourself a drink,” she said, as she pulled the c-note out of her bag. I thanked her for the gift and asked her if she remembered the basketball goal she and my father gave me all those years ago. “You loved that,” she said. “You played with it every day after school.” Of course, she is wrong. She’s almost eighty now, and her memory is not as solid as it used to be. Or maybe it’s my memory that’s not so clear. I am getting older, you know.