Coronavirus did not destroy my big birthday plans.
Long before this chaotic year, I knew how I wanted to celebrate my milestone, and it was even better than expected.
When Tom, a good friend from college, turned 50, his friend Alicia, who works for NPR, decided to put together a collection of stories from people he knew to commemorate the occasion.
For decades, Tom and Alicia had a tradition of a “biscotti tasting” party, which started just after college graduation and remained an excuse for friends to come together once every couple of years, catch up, and pig out for an afternoon.
Alicia had years’ worth of contacts and asked each of us to leave voicemail messages detailing particular memories of Tom’s friendship and why he mattered in our lives.
She then put together the audio vignettes to music, like an abbreviated version of This American Life. It was incredible! After listening to the final cut, I knew I wanted the same sort of living obituary. What better gift than a tangible version of how much you matter in this world, from those who count?
* * * *
For a long time, I didn’t think I would ever live this long. I imagined it was just me who felt inexplicable dread that I would not make it past my early forties.
When I voiced this feeling at a support group for domestic abuse survivors, I discovered that others felt something similar: that we would somehow die before growing old.
We all could certainly have become victims of domestic violence; countless people meet death at the hands of their partners. Several of us had been strangled repeatedly; one’s ex-husband even broke her back in front of their four children.
But one woman had a more interesting explanation for the death premonition.
She believed that our former identities were what died. The lives we used to lead, the people we once were, could not survive. Perhaps our subconscious knew that in getting out, we would experience the death of our former personas.
This made sense to me.
* * * *
During the 20 years in my own toxic relationship, birthdays were not treated as special occasions, or at least mine wasn’t. My ex got me a crappy pair of earrings that were completely not my taste in the early days of our relationship, and used my initial disappointment as an excuse to never buy me anything again, calling me “spoiled.”
He would instead grudgingly spend 5 minutes printing an image from the computer and then scribbling a sentence on the back, calling it a “homemade” birthday card to show his “effort,” and we would go out to dinner. But that was it.
I grew used to the fact that my husband never got me gifts, and tried to twist his lazy apathy into something acceptable. Like getting nothing on my birthday was no big deal, because I’m not a materialistic person, right? Who needs gifts?
But just below the surface, I did wish that he cared enough to do something nice for me that I didn’t have to beg for.
If I bothered to ever ask for anything, he would throw a fit. Early in our relationship, I once requested that he clean the filthy tub so I could take a hot bath on my birthday to relax (he of course had not planned anything that Saturday). He blew up and insulted me, calling me a “princess.”
The marriage ended almost two decades later. All those years of disappointment were over. And then, somehow, I met the love of my life, who you know as the male part of Been There Got Out.
Chris’s approach to not only birthdays but life in general has been instead to treat me lovingly – on a daily basis. And one of the cherries on top is that he also places a lot of importance on making me happy on my birthday!
After mentioning how much I loved Alicia’s gift to Tom years ago, Chris took note. And even in the midst of a pandemic (as well as a super-busy production schedule), he took time out to get in touch with dozens of my friends throughout the decades of my life, and carefully instructed them on how to make a video, including several senior citizens who wrestle with technology.
Despite getting more than half of the responses after the deadline, he managed to put everything together into a priceless tribute, with music, which we watched with my kids on my birthday.
* * * *
A big part of surviving a relationship involving domestic abuse involves learning how to cope with isolation. So many of us do not share what we are experiencing, because we are afraid of the reality that most people, unless they are in it, cannot understand or even sympathize.
COVID-19 has not been as difficult for someone like me to deal with, especially in terms of seclusion. I have heard a number of other survivors say the same thing. Someone who has made it through trauma has often learned to develop tremendous strength and resilience.
Most importantly, we have learned to be grateful. Yes, the pandemic and everything it entails, as well as the rest of that whole crappy year, has been awful. And it may get worse.
Still, it’s far better than my marriage.
The fact that so many of my friends and family took the time to share their affection in personalized stories, and that I have a partner devoted to my well-being… none of this I ever imagined possible a few years ago.
Eating takeout Indian food and lounging around the living room with my children, our dog, and my partner surrounded with love, feeling safe and at peace, and watching this incredible tribute video was the best birthday I could ever have hoped for.