The Gift of Birthdays

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Photo by Kara Hathaway

He woke¬† up today like he does pretty much every morning, curled at the foot of the bed, his back pressed against my legs. Howie is not the cuddly type, but he always lets me know he’s right there. It’s comforting to stir in the night and feel his warm presence.

To Howie, our beloved senior Dalmatian, today probably seemed like every other day. Get up, stretch, rub your face vigorously into the bedspread (it’s a Howie thing). Then it’s out the door to leave a streaming calling card on a favorite fence post and back inside to watch the she-human for any sign that she might be heading toward the dog bowls to prepare breakfast.

Little does Howie know, however, today is anything but a normal day. Today is Howie’s 14th birthday. It is a milestone day. Maybe he senses it in the extra dose of attention he’s receiving from me and Jim. I give him a big kiss and a hug that results in an “oh-mom” expression on his face, his ears sticking out to the sides like those of a baby goat.

Maybe he recognizes his own name highlighted in the lyrics of the happy birthday song…especially after I’ve serenaded him about 10 times. Maybe the little bites of chicken topping his morning meal make him realize today is no ordinary day. Maybe he somehow knows that the good smell coming from the oven is a cake for him to share with his canine family.

Maybe.

Or maybe the fuss and celebration is actually more for me. During a time when the world seems to have stopped spinning and seeing those I love means having to step away instead of stepping in to give a big hug, celebrating something as beautifully normal as my special dog’s birthday is a gift. A gift to myself.

I love this dog. He is my guy. He has been firmly attached to my heart since the day I lifted his little eight-week-old body from a crate and held him close. He is smart, he is lord of this doggy castle. He is stoic and strong. He is loyal and devoted. And when he lets his boss-dog facade slip just a bit, his head nodding low, his ears pushed comically sideways, his eyes darting up to meet yours, he will surely melt you into a puddle.

And so today, on April 5th, as I have for 13 years before, I am celebrating Howie’s birthday. I am following a well-established routine and reveling in the sweet normalcy of it all. No hidden demon can disrupt this simple, day-long ceremony. I’m ecstatic about normal. It is a blessed escape from the world outside the gate of our little farm.

Today I am also celebrating the birthday of my darling great-nephew, Caleb. He is funny, cute, clever, and when he smiles his whole face just glows. He deserves a great celebration and yet his birthday party will be anything but normal. We won’t be gathering close around him to sing and shower him with gifts. We won’t be there to see him blow out seven candles with one to grow on.

This is the reality of our lives right now. But while the threat of a virus and our new practice of “social distancing” may have put our idea of normal on hold for a bit, in its place I have seen more creativity, determination, and pure human spirit than I have ever seen before.

So today, Jim, Howie and I got to be in a birthday parade. A line of cars, each filled with family and friends and festooned with streamers, balloons and signs, created a mobile surprise party parade, honking and calling out greetings to the obvious delight of the birthday boy.  On the second pass by their home, each car in the parade stopped to express personal wishes and to drop cards and gifts in a bin placed by the curb. Caleb and his family waved from their porch, laughing and calling out their I-love-yous.

In Caleb’s own words, his birthday parade was “epic.” No, it was not normal. It was not a party with a bouncy castle, games, party favors and a dozen friends. But it was filled with pure joy and fun. It was creative. It was uplifting. And the love surrounding that little boy couldn’t have been stronger.

So today was a day of celebrations. One beautifully normal, one beautifully creative. And in the end, I’m pretty sure I’m the one who received the best gifts. I have the gift of quietly celebrating Howie, my special spotted boy, who is living a long, healthy life. I have the gift of celebrating Caleb whose huge grin and waving hands served to lift a chunk of the weight from my shoulders that has been trying its best to drag me down.

Today was a day to be reminded of gratitude. A day to feel connected and grounded in a time of such extreme uncertainty. A day to recognize that normal and out-of-the-ordinary can be equally beautiful.

Happy, happy birthday to Howie and Caleb. Thank you both for the gift of your celebrations. Thank for reminding me that the human (and canine!) spirit is strong, alive, and well.