Starting on the snowy eve before I turned one – and continuing on until the night before my thirteenth birthday – my father wrote an annual letter to me. After writing each one, he would place the paper into an envelope, seal it, scrawl his signature across the flap, and then write the date of the letter across the front.
On the night of my thirteenth birthday, he and I embarked on the event that I’d looked forward to ever since my sister had experienced her very own thirteenth birthday extravaganza. We went to dinner at The Four Seasons and sat so close to the pool that I could have stuck my fingers into the water and I don’t remember what I ate for dinner, but I know that I ordered the Chocolate Velvet for dessert and that they also brought me a cloud of cotton candy with some ice cream hidden beneath the perfectly formed fluff of sugar. Afterwards, we went to see a Broadway show – Penn and Teller.
The whole thing was glorious, in spite of the fact that I was wearing a white satin drop-waist dress that had fringe all over it and my hair was asymmetrical and curly, giving me the appearance of an unfortunate looking hedge. Holy shit, did my gawky stage suck, but it didn’t matter later that night when my father and I sat on my bed and I was able – finally – to open my letters.
I began to cry before I slid the first one free from its envelope, my fingers tracing where he had signed it all those years ago. And I sat with him and I think I read them to myself, but it’s possible he read them to me, and I was taken to a time and a place before I had mastered language, before I had developed a sense of humor, before my parents divorced.
I learned things from those letters that I didn’t know about myself. Turns out that before they called me Tuffy, my father liked to call me Bruno. It was a name he saw as tough, and I was a tough kid, the kind of baby who flung herself from her crib because she decided that naptime was, in fact, over. I found out that I went on strike when I was two and would only eat olives, tomatoes, and, when I was feeling charitable to my concerned parents who feared they were raising an anorexia-prone toddler, a few fried clams. I found out that I drew pictures for the couple that owned the Shell gas station on the corner of Pulaski Road and they hung them in the office. I learned that I always loved Cookie Monster, which I kind of suspected, but it turns out I also loved Linda Ronstadt and John Travolta and that I knew the entire soundtrack of Hair by heart, belting out lines that included words like “atomic orgasm” in front of frightened strangers.
At one point during my two-year-old letter, he mentioned that the cost of diapers was soaring and that I showed no signs of embracing the toilet training my parents were pushing like crack. And then he wrote, “I wonder how much Pampers will cost in 1989. Will I even be there to see it?” The line didn’t resonate much when I read it the first time, but years later, when I went back one wistful night to read my letters, the line stopped me cold – because he died in 1989.
But that night, the night I received those letters, he was alive and he was next to me and I will always see those letters as the greatest gift I have ever been given.
I haven’t read my letters in a long time. I used to do so every few years and I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and read them in order and I would begin to weep, softly at first but then the tears would roll furiously down my cheeks, and I guess the whole thing was kind of cathartic in a torturous kind of way.
Those letters are like a verbal time capsule and I’d maybe give anything to have that night back when I learned about my own history from the man I loved the most.
He’s been gone now for longer than I had him. It’s a fact that I accepted a long time ago because it’s something you have to accept if you want to lead a life that is not one that’s paralyzed. But there are days when his absence is felt more profoundly than others, usually on big events like graduations or on certain holidays and sometimes on my birthday.
My birthday is Tuesday. I hate the time of year that it falls and I always have. First, it’s at a time when everybody – including me – feels done with being festive and everyone is kind of poor and I always got presents that were combination holiday/birthday gifts, which was nice, I guess, when I wanted something grand, but less exciting when I wanted to unwrap something on my actual birthday. There is also the whole weather thing of early January and the miserable blizzards that always seemed to descend from the heavens to dump feet of snow on the world in what I pretended was a tangible acknowledgment from Mother Nature that she knew my birthday was upon us. But the night the piles of snow forced my Sweet 16 to be cancelled made me think that Mother Nature was a real bitch.
This year there seems to be no major snow coming our way and I kind of feel nothing about having a birthday anyway, but I have been reflecting on how much those long ago letters meant to me and that maybe this year, I should write one to myself. So here we go:
The letters your father wrote for you always began with a compiled list of things you enjoyed during the previous year, so let’s get to listing. This last year, you loved the feeling you got when yoga was over, your Kindle, the look of your dog rocking a hoodie, sushi wrapped in cucumber instead of rice, fruit-filled sangria, steel-cut oatmeal, tacos, that first cup of black coffee in the morning, and your new computer.
You became closer to certain friends and you learned the limitations of other friends. You kept dark secrets that you were told and you learned definitively whom you could and couldn’t trust.
You looked around at the family you used to think you needed a flowchart to organize and explain and you saw that it wasn’t really all that complicated anymore and that the people who didn’t start out as members of your family have become some of the people you love the most. You saw that during your good and your painful moments, the siblings who were most there for you were the ones who are not really related to you. And you saw that your own sister might actually care, but she is incapable of showing it and showing it matters.
You met men you thought about a lot and men who would never matter. You didn’t lie to a single one of them. You only lied to yourself sometimes. You decided that, this coming year, self-deceit wouldn’t happen either.
You got highlights in your hair and ate protein the size of your fist. You wished many times that you had a larger fist. You pulled on sneakers and went walking around your town and you tackled the hills like they were problems to solve. You met your neighbors when you dug out your car after a major storm and you all but threw yourself in front of a guy driving some vehicle with a shovel attached to the front of it and sweet-talked him into digging your car out in a way you never could. And then you asked him to help your neighbors too because to not do so felt selfish.
You thawed out your dog through the last long winter and you wrapped her in furry blankets. You watched her fall into a swimming pool and down your stairs. You realized that sometimes the passage of time is kind of scary but that you can do nothing to stop it from happening. You learned that as a dog ages, she begins to snore and you never let it bother you because you know there will come a day when that won’t be a sound you will get to hear anymore.
You watched more reality television this year than in all of your other years combined, and you turned your puzzlement and your shame in doing so into a blog where you frequently commented on the insanity you willfully programmed into your DVR. When someone mentioned to you ideas about creating a reality show that he would appear on, you did your best to talk him out of doing so because you have a brain and sometimes that beats ambition and you were thinking about his long-term welfare and you’re still glad you gave that guidance.
You became a writer this year for real. You had always written and you published a novel a few years ago, but this year you wrote daily and fought to get better at it and you threw your words out into a world that was mostly kind but was ringed with some flaming bands of lunatics and you tried not to let it all get to you and you didn’t have to try so hard after a while. Your blog became important to you and it rose in site visits in a way that made you interested in statistics for the first time ever and also made you shake your head in wonderment as to who some of the visitors were. You were sometimes nervous to share the things you wrote with the world, but you got over that fear fast.
You were kind of weirdly challenged to write a script and so you did – and it was fucking great. And you got feedback that was positive and you have responses now from people who could make this all a reality and you will not stop until a network or Netflix orders a full season. And you fantasize sometimes about sitting in a writer’s room, a board of ideas behind you, and you know that you’re going to negotiate yourself a producer’s credit too, and you know with certainty and with everything you are that this will happen and the positive emails now coming your way from people who believe in you make you feel stronger.
You wrote a book and tried not to gag every time you realized it was a memoir and you spoke to graphic designers and you made sure you weren’t violating copyrights and you heaved it into the world with something that was kind of a combination of a sigh and an exhalation of pure relief all at the same time. You decided that, yes, you had experienced some pain but you also knew that you would never forget any of it and that there was no purpose in regretting any of it either. You learned a lot – and it felt good to adore someone for a while.
You smiled and nodded when those closest to you encouraged you to feel more anger, but you decided fury wasn’t the right road for you; resignation and moving forward was how you’d handle things from this point onward, and it became a choice with which you were comfortable. That shrugging mentality came to your benefit when someone new asked you what your book was about and you didn’t spin your answer, you just answered the question, and you knew that you only cared about confident people anyway so your answer didn’t matter – the response to your answer is what meant something real.
You watched your mother recover from a major surgery and you brought her home from the rehabilitation center and your eyes shone with pride when everyone in the place came to hug her goodbye because you could see just how much of a light she is to the world and you were proud that she was popular and that her presence there would be missed. You realized just how much your stepfather loves her because he visited her every single day and was so happy to have her home and you saw that your brother would always be there for all of you, something you weren’t sure of a few years ago. You learned that your stepfather can build a town quicker than he could renovate a bathroom, but the finished product is so beautiful that you’d willingly live in that bathroom for the rest of your life, though the toilet bowl that has a lid that opens on its own might very well be the thing that takes over the planet some day and you know that having a healthy fear of it is the right way to proceed.
You cared about your students and you successfully managed to never say, “Put that fucking phone away,” because you can get away with a lot, but saying such a sentence might get you into trouble. You wrote recommendation letters for kids you adore and you celebrated them when they got what is at this point the best news of their lives and consoled kids who thought the rejection was something they could never move beyond. And you told them that there was a time that you believed your entire life would be defined by your SAT scores and now you can’t even remember them, which is not fully true – you remember them – but they don’t matter anymore and they haven’t for a good long time.
You met dogs and kids this year who took to you quickly. You were told you were beautiful at times where it mattered. You bought and wore amazing statement rings and organized your collection of boots in a way where you see them every single day and they always make you smile.
You contacted an old friend and told her that you saw how successful her business had become, and you told her how proud of her you were. Her response was kind and thoughtful and it made you smile and, though you haven’t seen her in over a decade, you still have a real affection for who she was to you then and it felt good to acknowledge that.
Men who once captured your interest for a few weeks descended like a virile swarm of locusts, but you had moved on from them and you decided not to look back, even though to do so would have been the easier choice.
You weren’t always the best friend or the best family member, allowing the things in your own world to limit your involvement in their world, but you remembered that you could apologize and that, if you meant that apology, the issue could be closed forever.
You reminded yourself that it was best not to look back.
You visited masseuses, manicurists, and mystics. You bought and used an ab roller and learned you can’t do a single pull-up. You read biography after biography and learned all that you could about the year 1968 because you decided that you wanted to know about the world into which Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate had been released. You tried to make your students realize that, just because something happened before they were born, it didn’t mean that the event shouldn’t matter. You congratulated yourself for not punching a student in the throat when he told you that Almost Famous wasn’t that good of a movie.
You learned to exercise restraint.
You fell off the wagon and ate only Twix for two days straight. After hour eighteen, there was no more joy is the cookie crunch and you might have ruined Twix for yourself forever. You decided to see this new aversion to one of the greatest foods of our time as a positive thing.
You started the year with a kale smoothie that has blueberries and almond butter and you pretended that it tasted great. You went out and bought fun straws to drink that shit with and you realized how hard it is to drink a kale smoothie through a silly straw. You switched to a regular bendy straw and you let yourself feel the sadness of the moment.
You looked outside this morning and thought about the quickest way to build a time machine so that you didn’t have to go back to work tomorrow, but you know that you can’t build anything and that the entertainment console you put together for your first apartment leaned precariously to the left for years, so you picked out an outfit to wear and tossed some k-cups into your bag so at least you’d be caffeinated in your classroom in the coming dawn.
You went through a lot and you made some mistakes and the truth is that you could have avoided many of them. You tried to see only the positives and you made excuses for yourself and for others. You learned not to do those things anymore and you took responsibility for that which you should have and you refused to apologize when something was not your fault.
You laughed hard and you hoped some nights would never end but you also prayed for the morning sometimes.
You decided to believe that you could actually do anything as long as you worked for it and you learned to embrace the hustle. When someone could help you to get to the next step of where you needed to be, you reminded him that you and your work would alter his life for the better and you stopped having the fear that you were bothering him. It was an important lesson to learn and you finally got there.
You felt lonely sometimes but you never felt like you were alone.
You chose to believe that you would get yourself the moon and the stars and you stopped wishing upon them and started working for them.
And you still love olives, just like you did when you were two.
Happy birthday, and may this coming year bring you health, success, and the ability to do just one fucking pull-up.