On Sunday, my birthday, I made it to church for the first time in a long while. We were running late, of course, and I decided to take Dora with me into the service rather than sending her to the nursery as I usually do. We walked in during a hymn, and as I stood there holding Dora and her night-night, looking at the sun shining in through the stained glass, I felt that familiar intense sadness and longing for my family that I sometimes feel at church. The sermon that day was about paradoxes - about the way we all carry within us a duality that is sometimes difficult to admit. Even Jesus felt darkness and light, love and hate, joy and sorrow - and all of those feelings, as the pastor said, are true within us. There are times when church is just a place you go, and times when its a fun social activity, and times when it reaches out and grabs at your heart, reminding you why you are there. It doesn't have to be a formal religion to make this happen either - there are just moments that speak to you, grab your attention in such a way that you are glad - so glad - that you were there, and not sleeping in as you had wanted to that morning.
My birthday was quite wonderful, thanks in no small part to my husband. I have been traveling a lot lately - which is why I haven't posted much lately - and I told Brian that what I really wanted for my birthday was to bake a cake and make a nice meal for my friends. I just wanted to be in my house, filling it up with wonderful smells and loving people. I ran out to the grocery store early in the morning on my birthday, and when I returned Brian and Dora sang happy birthday to me, which was probably the highlight of my day. That afternoon, Brian came home with a bouquet of flowers. He worked tirelessly with me all weekend getting the house ready, and helped me put on a sweet little dinner for our friends.
All of our friends who came over brought me sweet, meaningful gifts - a handmade magnet, more flowers, a beautiful Bible with a thoughtful inscription, daffodil bulbs (my favorite flower) and a great drawing of our whole family by our little friend Isaac. Brian then gave me his gift - a beautiful handknit scarf and fingerless gloves made by my friend Mandy, which he had commissioned her to make for me. For dinner we had salad, roasted fall vegetables, bread, brie, and lemon-herb chicken. I really wanted the house to smell like my mom's house when I was a kid - the smell of a chicken roasting is an instant reminder of my childhood. For dessert I made a Texas Italian Cream Cake, with cream cheese and toasted coconut frosting.
It was absolutely delicious, primarily because of the great company we had for dinner. After everyone left, after Dora was in bed and the living room lights turned off, Brian and I were loading the dishwasher in the dark, quiet kitchen. I thanked him for helping me have such a wonderful day, and thanked him for all the work he did so we could have our little dinner party. I said, "I know it was a lot of work, but that's really what I wanted for my birthday, to have those people over here who are like our family now".
My words caught in my throat just a bit, and I thought again of my family, of my mom, and how much I miss them. Birthdays are like a family holiday for us - my brother and I have the same birthday, six years apart, and my dad's birthday is the following day. All through my childhood we would have one big party for all of us. I remember mom making or buying three different cakes some years. She would get those Pepperidge Farm 3-layer frozen cakes, and of course my brother and I wanted different flavors. We always recycled wrapping paper, and I believe there is still in existence a bit of the "Carrie" wrapping paper, my name in rainbow 70s-style letters against a white background. There were years when our birthdays fell on election day, and I always hated having to wait until after we drove out to the fire station to vote to open our gifts.
I always think about my family on my birthday, and think about my mom. I wonder what she felt like on her son's 6th birthday when she went into labor with her second baby. As I child I felt it was unfair that I had to share my special day with my brother, of all people, although now of course I love this little quirky fact about us. Now, as a mother myself, I wonder what it was like for my mom to have to fit all of that emotion into one day. I find it challenging enough to reflect on the meaning of each August 4th, recounting the events of Dora's exquisite birth. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to find the space for adequate reflection of two births in one day. People used to ask my mom if she planned this, to which she would always laugh and say "yes" in her most sarcastic tone, but I must admit the thought crossed my mind as we have contemplated a second baby - as if any of us have that much control.
I had a beautiful birthday, full of many reminders of why my life now is so blessed and so wonderful - my family, my friends, my pets, my home. But it was not without a few moments of absolute sadness, of wishing intently as I often do for just one more day with my mom, just one afternoon to watch her play in the sunshine with Dora, just one more birthday to share with my whole family as I used to. I have within me that paradox that my pastor spoke of - darkness and light, joy and sorrow. I look at my baby girl and my sweet husband and feel like my heart could explode with happiness, and in the same breath feel it break for what I have lost. That conflict is not always easy to bear, for me or for anyone else, but feeling that makes us human. That is a universal truth - that we have to experience both sides of the paradox - and that is not a bad thing, or a shortfall, or a tragedy of life - but a rich and beautiful part of it. I am thankful that I have the capacity to experience all of that - both the good and the bad. I believe it is a gift to have the responsibility to teach our children how to hold both sides of the paradox, to love that part of ourselves and one another. That is the truth within all of us, the truth that reaches out and grabs us, and reminds us why we are here.