My birthday is on March 30. This year (2020), I turned fifty-eight. When fireworks heralded the new year, I didn’t expect to remember my birthday for COVID-19. I thought it would be another tick towards a more significant (sobering) milestone, sixty. Now I’m wondering, should I forget this birthday?
But the thing is, I like celebrating birthdays. And dipping into my diaries dating back to 1987, I’ve had some good ones over the decades. So, I thought I might share a selection of my birthday highlights and thoughts in this blog post.
Most were happy occasions, some less so, and, frankly, a few do read like ticks towards something more significant. Like this first diary entry from 1987:
Two-and-a-half decades on this planet. With luck, five-and-a-half to go.
Ah, to be twenty-five again! Where have the years (and birthdays) gone?
The England years, 1988-1995
1988: Tried to keep my birthday a secret in the Brighton office. But C (my wife) told the team, and after lunch, they surprised me with a cake and card and chorus of Happy Birthday. (I was secretly happy they did so!)
1989: Caught a black London cab to Madame Tussauds. Some waxworks looked more realistic than others. Gave Aussie PM Bob Hawke a telling off. Wasn’t keen on the grisly Chamber of Horrors exhibit.
1991: Explored the Isle of Wight. Less traffic than the mainland, with quiet roads running through green, rolling hillsides and picturesque villages. Favourite sites were the Needles and Yarmouth, for its quaint pubs.
1992: Arranged to meet J (my younger brother, newly arrived from Australia) in Oxford. However, he wasn’t on the scheduled bus. Drove home to Brighton, wondering what had happened to him. Knock on the door late at night. Opened it to find a dishevelled figure on the doorstep: ‘Happy thirtieth, brother!’
1994: Grim time at the dentist. Two fillings, without anaesthetic, and a hygienist who attacked my teeth and bloodied my gums with what felt like a paint scraper. Note to self: never again book a dentist appointment on your birthday!
1995: Boarded Eurostar at Waterloo Station (which felt more like Heathrow Airport than a train station). Left London at a pedestrian pace, travelling slightly faster through Kent until we reached the Chunnel. Twenty minutes of close darkness and then bang, daylight and open French countryside and a top speed of 300 kph to Paris.
Back in Australia, 1996-2001
1996: Champagne breakfast with the family in Perth, before catching flight eastwards for dinner with C in Sydney. My first cross-continental birthday!
1998: Sorely tempted to skip philosophy class. Seems I wasn’t the only one put off by tutor’s Marxist rant last week, as two other regulars were absent. Thankfully, the tutor gave me an unwitting birthday present, and after a brief (ranty) recap, he moved on from Marxism.
1999: Raining in the Blue Mountains when we arrived in Mt Victoria. I didn’t mind, as it was an excellent excuse to stay inside the Manor House, sit in comfy sofas and read our books beside the open fire.
2001: Had birthday breakfast in the back garden. I opened my cards and presents, and then C handed me an extra envelope. Inside was a card with a baby on the front, and in it, she had written, ‘If you’re still willing to be the house dad, I’ll give parenting a try.’
2002: Drove to Jabiru airport for my fortieth birthday treat, an aerial tour of the Arnhem Land Escarpment. Our single-prop plane was so small, even if she had wanted to join me, I doubt six-month pregnant C would have fitted onboard. I sweated from fear as the plane bounced up and down in the thermals. But views of Kakadu, the Escarpment and Jim Jim Falls were fantastic.
A new dad, 2003-2010
2003: An odd birthday. I was spoilt with cards and presents, and surrounded by my favourite people and dog, but for some reason, it didn’t feel ‘special’. Perhaps it’s a sign of getting older. Or maybe I was just shattered after another sleep-interrupted night with J (my baby boy)?
2004: After struggling with J on my own all day yesterday, I felt exhausted and not in the mood to celebrate my birthday. But when I collected him from childcare, he greeted me with a big smile and ‘DAD-DY’ at the top of his lungs, and suddenly the day felt special.
2006: J got up and had a pee, turned on the lights and asked if we could open my birthday presents … at 3 am! Took an hour to get him back to sleep, yet he was first up when the sun shone through curtains at 7 am. And still keen to help me open presents in the morning and blow out my candles at night.
2007: J (my younger brother) called to wish me a happy birthday. I reminded him it’s fifteen years since he knocked on my flat door in Brighton to wish me happy thirtieth.
2008: Off to the SCG with J (my son), both dressed in red and white, to watch Sydney Swans play AFL. Loved our seats near the fence, right near the players. Cheered the Swans to victory and then, the best part, we had kick-to-kick on the ground after the final siren. Perfect day for this footy-fan dad!
2010: J crawled into bed beside me with my birthday present in pitch darkness. Sometime later, he checked the bedside clock and announced it was 6 am. Kept him still and quiet for a little longer, before getting up for another bleary-eyed birthday.
A middle-aged dad (2011-2019)
2011: Nice touch when the manager at the gym came and shook my hand, wishing me a happy birthday. ‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘This year, turning forty-nine, I do feel a year older!’
2012: J commented on our walk to school, ‘Dad, you’re not going to live to be a hundred, are you?’ ‘No, son,’ I replied, ‘that’s very unlikely.’ He paused and smirked, ‘So even though you turned fifty today, that means you’ve been middle-aged for a while?’ Thanks, son!
2015: No time for celebration with a busy day of chores, before driving J to water polo training. At least it gave me a chance to unwind with my well-into-middle-age laps in the pool while J trained for next week’s Gold Coast championships.
2017: Blustery and bucketing down for water polo training. But it meant I had the fifty-metre lap pool to myself when I pushed off to attempt fifty-five laps for my fifty-fifth birthday. All the training paid off, I smashed my goal and did sixty laps!
2018: J gave me the perfect gift: books. Though The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi seemed an odd choice. It’s about a father who rides off on his bike and deserts his family.
2019: Returned to the pool after a long break. Shoulders stuffed from the start. Couldn’t finish one lap freestyle, let alone fifty-seven. However, I limped to my goal with breaststroke (in sets of ten). Might be the last time I mark my birthday swimming laps!
A Birthday to Forget?
I didn’t do my birthday laps this year. After 2019’s painful swim, I had an MRI and learned I’d torn the tendons in both shoulders. And anyway, the pool was closed due to COVID-19.
Thanks to the wretched virus, life has changed dramatically for us all since the start of the year. And there is an understandable desire to write off 2020 and fast forward to 2021.
It’s tempting to forget this year’s birthday, too, but I won’t! Like 2003, I spent it surrounded by my favourite people and dog (albeit in lockdown). Unlike in 2006, I blew out my birthday candles without ‘help’. But there were socially-distanced well-wishes from family and friends. And my son gave me more great books to read.
I have another reason for not writing off this year: my son turns eighteen in June. It’s forty years since my eighteenth. I’ve still got the polished wood card from that day, with the well-wishes of family and friends written inside.
In truth, my memories of my eighteenth are distant and dim (and dimming further as I tick off the years towards my milestone sixtieth!). Maybe COVID-19 will etch this year more firmly in my son’s memory.
For his sake, and for all of us, I hope there’s some joy among the gloom of 2020. And that, like me, he and we all have a birthday to remember.
© 2020 Robert Fairhead
Note: This post originally appeared on the Tall And True writers’ website blog.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a middle-aged dad and dog owner. Robert Fairhead is writer and editor at Tall And True, an online showcase and forum for writers, readers and publishers. His book reviews and other writing have appeared in various print and online media. And he has published two collections of short stories, Both Sides of the Story (2020) and Twelve Furious Months (2021).