I don’t like birthdays. Especially my own. When I was a kid, I looked forward to the day because it meant I would receive presents. Now that I have disposable income, I don’t need to wait for my birthday to obtain some coveted object. As such, I don’t see the day as particularly important, and I certainly don’t feel as though it warrants some sort of fete. What exactly is there to celebrate? Surviving one year from your last birthday is no accomplishment, unless you’re living in the midst of some sort of zombie apocalypse.
All this being said, I planned on having a low-key, fuss-free birthday this year. A few weeks ago, I started attending a weekly mindfulness meditation workshop. It just so happened that a session was scheduled on the same day as my birthday. Cool. That would give me two hours away from all the birthday jazz. After my workshop, I would head over to the University of Toronto Mississauga where I was invited, along with several other professionals, to speak at a marketing and communications networking night. Factor in travel time, and I figured I would be occupied from about noon until 7:30 p.m. At that point, I would leave UTM and drop by Jayee’s house on my way home – I may not give a shit about my birthday, but she wanted to see me in person to wish me a happy birthday. Cool. After hanging out with Jayee for a bit, I would pick up a pizza and have dinner with my dad and uncle. Such was my schedule.
The day was going according to plan through my meditation workshop, which I ducked out of a little early to ensure I would arrive on time for the networking event. On the drive to the campus, I recalled so many of my happy memories from UTM – reading my textbooks on the bus, going for runs around the neighbourhood between classes, standing in line at Tim Hortons for sesame seed bagels and hot chocolate. As I approached the south building, I took a closer look at the banners attached to light standards around the campus. Like retired numbers hanging from the rafters of a sports arena, each banner honours a member of the university’s outstanding faculty or alumni with the words “Be Recognized” emblazoned behind his or her portrait. My heart sank. I had moments where I felt recognized as a student, and even though I was invited back to speak at an event, I felt as though what little stature I had was nothing compared to the folks pictured on those banners. I wondered if I would ever be recognized on a larger scale, something I’ve always wanted.
As I walked into the south building I was hit with the familiar scent of the gym – a surprisingly pleasant mixture of sweat from the gymnasium and chlorine from the swimming pool. I remembered playing basketball, running laps on the indoor track, and pulling the handles of the rowing machines. I missed being an able-bodied student.
I shook off my wistfulness when the networking event began, and I think I contributed something marginally valuable to the event. I even got a few laughs from the room. It was a pretty good night. As the event drew to a close, I got a text message from Jayee, telling me not to leave right away. Then another message telling me to meet her on campus. Then another message asking me to bring forks. Then another message telling me not to bring forks. Then a phone call telling me to meet her inside the university’s MiST Theatre. I pulled the heavy black doors to the theatre and saw Jayee’s silhouette in the darkness. Her face came into focus only when she stood right in front of me.
I looked around the theatre for any other silhouettes, for any sign that there were other people lurking in the darkness waiting to jump out and yell “surprise!” – which is what I dread most on my birthday. Jayee turned the lights up a little to reveal a red leather couch positioned in front of a huge screen. Behind the couch sat a table holding plastic plates and forks, a knife, and the coolest cake in the history of baked goods.
“What’s your favourite number?” Jayee had asked me a few days before my birthday.
“Thirteen,” I replied.
“Is that because you don’t like superstitious people and you want to prove to them there’s nothing unlucky about the number 13?”
When Jayee posed the question, I had a feeling that maybe she was going to buy me a customized soccer jersey with my name and favourite number on the back. I was sort of right.
As amazing as my Arsenal jersey cake was (check the Premier League logo details on the numbers and the sleeves!), it wasn’t even the best gift Jayee had for me. She ran over to a computer off to the side of the theatre and played a video that projected onto the big screen in front of the red couch.
The tears started flowing when the first recorded message came on screen, and my eyes remained wet throughout the parade of high school friends, college friends, work friends, university friends. My friends. My girlfriend. With compliments and kind words just for me. Not just words from their mouths, but from their hearts, even if some of them had to rely on scripts. Sitting on the red couch, I wiped away my tears, kissed Jayee, and hugged her tight.
“I love you, Jayee,” I whispered.
“I love you too,” Jayee said. “Happy birthday, Rash.”
“Thank you so much.”
I didn’t want to ruin the beauty of my Arsenal jersey cake, but I cut three slices from the bottom of the shirt/cake. One for me, one for Jayee, and one for Peter, the MiST Theatre’s operations manager who helped coordinate the whole thing. While the show unfolded, Peter hung out quietly in his office above the stage.
Jayee and I tidied up and packed away the remainder of the cake, which would later serve as dessert for my dad and uncle after our pizza dinner. With Jayee in the passenger seat, I drove out of UTM, again passing the banners on the campus’ light standards. I still hope that someday I’ll earn a banner of my own, but I know that through my family, my friends, and my girlfriend, I’ve already been recognized. And not just for my work, but because evidently, I’m a decent human being.
Driving up Mississauga road, away from the campus, I said to Jayee, “Thank you again. Everything about tonight was wonderful.”
“What the hell am I going to do next year?”
NOTE: I cannot adequately express how lucky I am to have the legion of friends who contributed to my all-time favourite birthday present: Beth, Agnes, Ariana, Carine, Amir, Adam, Patrick, Brian, Jericho, Mark, Alistair, Sahil, Ketan, Jethro, Jett, Kleine, Lucy, Rashmi, Rolla, Olivia, Eve and Ethan, Elle, Emily, Marina, Highbeary, and of course, Jayee. Thank you all.