Berkeley birthdays

Bear with Me

Photo of Luke Stiles

“Feel any different?” a family friend would say as I blew out the candles on my “Blue’s Clues” cake. “A bit taller,” I’d say with a guilt-filled laugh, feeling exactly as I had the day before.

Most of my younger life was spent this way: looking forward to when I’d be able to watch PG-13 movies or drive or vote or kiss someone for the first time — willing the future to come faster.

With a November birthday, I’ve always been older for my grade, especially after being held back in preschool for my aversion to naptime. I was constantly on the front lines, among the first to dip a toe into whatever privileges came with turning 12 or 17 or 20.

To my disappointment, the thrill of being first lost its appeal when college appeared on my doorstep. The bittersweet thrum of graduation cheers and going-away parties gave way to a long drive up the coast to my new home. As I hauled through my first college syllabus, I found myself in the terribly embarrassing business of having to announce my own birthday to my new friends, planning my own dorm room party with sparkling cider and stolen dining hall desserts.

It felt selfish and vain to demand a hallway of unfamiliar freshmen who had been strangers two weeks before to put down their books and celebrate me. Who was I supposed to invite? Why on earth was it on a Monday? Wasn’t my mom supposed to help me do this?

My RA, to their credit, had a bulletin board of birthdays just outside the elevator. I admit I never so much as glanced at it until the day before I turned 19 when I had a mortifying impulse to move my post-it more centrally to maximize my well wishes.

Instead, I went about my day carrying what felt like a dirty little secret, that I was craving a celebration I didn’t know how to ask for. I feared that when my parents asked what I was doing for my nineteenth, I wouldn’t have a response.

Those feelings of being forgotten, of feeling resentful at the world and then guilty at your own entitlement — that experience is happening, silently, in the hallways of our campus with every overlooked post-it.

On the night before my 21st birthday, I was in that exact self-pitying spiral trying to figure out how to squeeze a belated birthday dinner into my friends’ convoluted schedules. After spending 19 in a dorm with people I no longer know and 20 in a mask I no longer need, I wanted 21 to be something I would remember, even if no one else did.

I got a call from a friend of mine who told me to come to his apartment for my first legal drink, which was enough to get me out of my room. We met and talked for the first time in weeks, and I didn’t realize the minutes slipping away until he walked me back home, up the stairs, to a roomful of my favorite people in the whole city.

“Surprise!”

There were sparklers and off-key birthday songs and, I can admit, more than my fair share of tears. I couldn’t properly express just how much it meant to me that I had friends that liked me and thought of me, that cared enough to put their Sunday night plans aside to celebrate one of my biggest moments.

It was the first time I truly felt at home in a place I had already spent years in. The energy in that room was enough to convince me I was doing okay, that I wasn’t losing some intangible race — that my relationships were evolving despite the fits and starts of my first two years.

It’s okay to recognize the very real bittersweetness in watching our own progression through life. Here at Berkeley, I’ve taken classes with people who are 12 and people who are 40, so I know the temptation to view each passing year as a portrait of what I could have done better. Looking around at the streamers and presents, trying to tabulate what I’d done to deserve them.

But I do, every bit as much as I did when all I had to show for myself were the mud potions my sisters and I brewed in the backyard. I don’t need a scavenger hunt or a bouncy house to remind me that I did it, that the last 12 months were something to be proud of.

This November, I’ll wake up to look around at who and what I’m lucky to have instead of looking ahead at what’s next. I’ll feel deserving of celebration and thankful for the years that have come and gone — not guilty for putting effort into rejoicing with my closest friends. 

When they bid their farewells and I collect the cups and plates, I’ll set an embarrassing amount of reminders to ensure that when the time comes, I can yell “surprise!” and raise a glass to them — celebrating the simple, small fact that they, yet again, have managed not to die.

Luke Stiles writes the Thursday column on unqualified advice and unpopular opinions. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.