I set the table, placed the candles in a stack of pancakes, began singing, and started recording.
It should have been simple. It should have been like any other birthday breakfast. Happy. Smiling. Sugary. Sweet. But what should have been, wasn’t.
Half-way through my serenade, Duke realized that his sister wasn’t singing. “Eloise! Sing!” he demanded.
“My voice… I can’t,” she croaked while pointing to her throat.
“Yes, you can! SING!!” His desperation became obvious as tears welled up in his eyes.
I put down the camera and tried to salvage the situation. “Let’s do it again. Eloise, please sing.” I started slowly, “Haaaaaaapy Biiiiiiirthday…” waiting for her to join in. But, she just sat there.
“I forgot the words,” she offered coyly.
Duke, by now, was in a full blown melt-down. Sobbing. Begging her to sing. Reminding her that he sang on her birthday. The candles still lit. The wax melting. Pancakes wilting.
By the third try, Eloise – deadpan and dramatic – sang along while Duke stood grim-faced and frustrated. He blew out the now-stubby-candles. I cheered and Eloise fled to her room, crying.
It was everything that shouldn’t have happened. It was disappointment. Harsh words. Hurt feelings. A lot like life. Not one of us will get to the end without a long list of shouldn’t-haves and I-didn’t-ask-for-this.
I remember telling a friend how I hate seeing my kids in pain. Especially when my choice to divorce is the very thing causing their pain. And you know what she said? She reminded me that we’re all given a bad hand. That we all will experience pain. She added, “your kids are just experiencing it earlier than others. And you’re giving them tools to help them deal with it.”
It was comforting – in a weird way. It helped me reframe the purpose of pain.
When I was young and super naive, I thought all you needed was love. That the Jerry McGuire “you complete me” line was real. And that happily ever after was possible. But things didn’t turn out that way. Turns out, you need a lot more than love. And that if you’re looking for completion, you’re doomed before you begin. It turns out that happiness is one of many side effects of living, along with frustration and pain. Fear and delight.
I never knew life would be hard because growing up was easy. I assumed it would always go as planned. And then it didn’t.
Lately, I’ve been listening to Anne Lamott’s s new audiobook, Hallelujah Anyway. She quoted Frederick Buchner as saying the main job of the teacher “is to teach gently the inevitability of pain.”
It’s hard lesson to learn, but I want my kids to learn it.
Because, life isn’t fair. Sometimes, you don’t get a happy birthday. Situations/relationships/experiences will disappoint you.
And it’s okay.
It starts with acceptance. But it doesn’t have to end in defeat.