19 candles: A personal essay

Illustration of multiple iterations of a person feeling lots of powerfully nostalgic emotions as they sit around a birthday cake.
Kelsey Choe/Staff

Related Posts

Dear Madeline,

The time is 6:59 a.m. You are glancing at the time on your phone, the white numbers a bright, nearly blinding source of light. You are in bed, and the dark covers are pulled to your chin, soft fabric brushing against the tip of your nose as you breathe. The color blue holds your hand, the feeling of melancholy personified.

It is silent. You much prefer it this way — the way the world quiets down, the alluring daze of schoolwork and bright lights tucked away in a cardboard box, a symbol of the way the glitter finally settles in a shaken snow globe. Except this snow globe is your life, and it is eerily calm. 

Naturally, you think about your family first. About your mom and your dad and your brother and how this is your first birthday away from the East Coast. It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. You think that something feels wrong, a little closed-off, a bit uncomfortable to think about. You think about that sweet potato cake that you love from Ellicott City, the euphoria associated with home-cooked meals and the way your mother’s perfume emanates from her smooth skin as she hugs you close. You think that maybe it would be nice — to hug her right now, to feel the cool sensation of her wedding ring pressed against your skin as you tuck your head into the crook of her neck. And you think about: home. The way it smells, the fingerprints on the wall and the broken trash compartment can and the mismatching colored mugs. There is probably kimchi in the fridge that is overly fermented, another chip in a drawer; but there is also a missing place at the dinner table. You think that it should be four plates instead of three and that there is nothing you wouldn’t do to fly over in this instant to finally come home.

“We want you to do so much better than we did,” your parents had said growing up, those words ingrained in your brain forever. You remember choosing to attend UC Berkeley, the pure sheen of sparkling pride in their eyes as they helped move you into your dorms. You did better. You are doing better. They did not warn you of this, though. They did not warn you of how sometimes you will cry behind Doe Library because you haven’t found a good cry-spot and how you will meet countless people and memorize countless names but still not understand why or how you feel like no one ever remembers yours. They did not warn you that while you do not have regrets about moving to California, you will sometimes feel like a shattered shell on a beach while everyone else collects whole ones. 

They did not warn you of how sometimes you will cry behind Doe Library because you haven’t found a good cry-spot and how you will meet countless people and memorize countless names but still not understand why or how you feel like no one ever remembers yours.

You miss them so much it hurts. It hurts so, so intensely, and you don’t want to get older because growing older means you’ll have to deal with it. 

Your heart aches, but it is OK. It almost feels like a crack in expensive china, except it is growing and growing and you cannot stop this inevitable sadness that explodes across the night sky like a cursed constellation. You are lonely, and your lips are tinged a midnight blue from sadness — but you are OK.

Lesson one: Loneliness is inevitable. It is not, however, permanent. Like everything else, it subsides. It fades. 

***

The time is 4:01 p.m. The midnight blue sadness is still here, a catalyst to these late thoughts that are crumpled at the edges and turning a different shade. You finished your classes for today, and your texts are filled with sweet messages and wishes for a wonderful, perfect day. I miss you, people say. When do you come back for summer? The sun is shining, and it is almost cliche how gorgeous the weather is, how wonderful campus looks when Sather Gate acts as a crown above crowds of students rushing through it.

You think about what you have learned, and you also say goodbye to 18. It is awfully bittersweet. You regret a lot of things in your life: how you handled saying no to uncomfortable suggestions, how you worked too hard or wore fashionable clothes to make people like you, how you bent your morals and beliefs to fit into this world. You regret the boy you kissed last summer and lashing out at your dad and you wish you had been able to be better at planning events with your friends to show them that you care much more than they realize.

But you have grown so much, and yet you don’t realize. The Madeline before would have died internally at meeting so many new people, and she would’ve avoided so many social events because of the anxiety that would well up, an overflowing source of stress. But the Madeline now likes to introduce herself at random moments; likes to hike early in the morning; likes bonding with other people because it makes her so happy. You are wonderful at smiling and checking up on people; you are wonderful at being honest, even if it’s a little too much in certain moments. Your personality is much stronger now. You are not so great at apologizing yet, but you’re getting there. It takes time, as all good things do.

You are wonderful at smiling and checking up on people; you are wonderful at being honest, even if it’s a little too much in certain moments.

“We want you to do so much better than we did,” your parents had said growing up. 

You think about this promise and continue on with your day. 

***

The time is 9:32 p.m. You are sitting in a circle with your church’s small group at the courtyard of Unit 1, greasy slices of Artichoke’s pizza soaking up napkins and nearly swallowing the thin, flimsy paper plates with the sheer size of it. Your hands are sticky, and there is oil underneath your ring, but it’s alright. The midnight blue fades into the same silvery tone as your jewelry, a warm, honeyed feeling lining the edges of your smile as you lean into the warmth of some of your favorite people. You facetimed two hometown friends just before this, and you haven’t felt like this in a long, long time — this nostalgia and bubbling sense of laughter, something so beautiful and rare that you hadn’t expected tonight. 

It is not loud where you’re sitting, but it is oddly familiar. You feel at ease, even with people you don’t know as well as others, and you think to yourself: I will find another home here in Berkeley. You think to yourself: I will think of having two homes, Maryland and Berkeley because my love for this place is greater than the passing fits of loneliness. The gifts you received sit to your right, and you keep glancing at them in quick moments, feeling the night sky open up and the starlight pierce through to your soul. 

You’re not eating sweet potato cake, but instead, it is a comically large slice of pizza. Strangely, it makes sense. Everything makes sense. 

Your grin is probably too large, and it hurts your stomach from laughing so much and doubling over, but it is real, ridiculously raw. Sugar lines your laugh. You miss your family, but you will see them soon, and this is enough. 

So here’s to epiphanies and accidents and terrible mistakes. Here’s to reading 60 books this year and laughing at weird jokes and giving the best hugs. Here’s to your faith and your mental health and your promise to study in all the campus libraries before freshman year ends. Here’s to spontaneous trips to San Francisco and exploring every inch of Chinatown and buying too-expensive matcha lattes. Here’s to lasting friendships. Here’s to you. 

And lastly, here’s to 19. 

Happy birthday. I will love you from afar.

From,
Home

Contact Madeline Kim at [email protected].