My grandson, Jack, and I may share a birthday, but our approach to this day is wholly different.
This year, Jack’s birthday began when he crawled into bed with his parents and his leg jittered like a jackhammer. My son said, “Jack, lie still, please.”
“Dad, I can’t. It’s my birthday. I’m too excited!”
Across town, my leg lay flaccid as I read in bed. I had forgotten it was my birthday until a reminder popped up that I was meeting Jack for a croissant at my favorite French bakery.
I once wrote that sharing a birthday meant that I’d never get to pick the cake flavor again. What I failed to realize was that little kids shouldn’t have to share their birthdays at all.
And no one of any age should fritter away a chance to eat their favorite cake.
It was in that spirit that I ordered my own cake from the French bakery for a week after our birthday. The woman who took the order knew the story of the deferred cake and asked, “What should I put on it, ‘happy birthday to me’?”
With no forethought I replied, “hmmm… How about just ‘happiness’.”
Since I placed that order, I’ve thought a lot about happiness. Not the big-money-no-whammy kind, but rather the ephemeral type. The type embraced by young children before their happiness stakes are met, and then raised.
After dinner, Jack’s parents have a tradition where Jack thinks up a question which each person at the table must answer. What’s your favorite food? Favorite Christmas gift? And on the night of my happiness cake, “Tell about a time when you were happy?”
Mine was easy.
Jack had three extremely intense rounds of chemo in Philly last year. Each round required a month-long hospital stay with roughly a week-long break in between. During this time, we had to follow Covid-like restrictions, including a moratorium on indoor activities.
Fortunately, the weather was beautiful the evening before each admittance. Our entire Philly-based family dropped everything to convene for dinner on the terrace of Clarkville Pizza in West Philly. Afterwards, we’d chase fireflies in Clark Park until past Jack’s bedtime. I can’t describe how much I loved those nights.
As we went around the dinner table, story after story detailed our happiest moments. Incredibly each story had happened in the midst of cancer.
It’s with this lens that I contemplate the misery of Covid—a global shitter overflowing with our collective angst. And I ask myself, how can the journey of a child’s battle with cancer be full of happy memories, while a year of Covid is full of despair?
One difference, I believe, is intention. The other is age.
We created happy memories for Jack as an obsession. Whether it was chasing fireflies or dressing in matching elf pajamas or eating a happiness cake, his nascent happy memories became our sustenance.
Fortunately, kids find happiness in almost everything. Hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows. An enormous yellow leaf found during our “who can find the biggest leaf” competition. A game of Go Fish. An ant hill. It takes so little to get a five-year-old’s leg to jiggle like jello.
Yet we are wired to think that happiness must be pursued. After all, it’s our birthright. Maybe our founding fathers should have softened the verbiage. Pursuit is too big, too fast, too endless. Pursuit too often flips into a ditch. Happiness too often taunts us from just beyond our reach and so we run faster, faster, faster.
Maybe toddle would have been a better word choice. Toddlers find happiness in everything. And when you are forced to toddle with them, it turns out snippets of happiness are, in fact, everywhere.
I know this won’t last—not Covid and not Jack’s innocent delight. His happiness stakes will become harder and harder to meet, as will my own.
But come January, when darkness descends with what feels like permanence, I’ll remind myself that the darkest days do end. And I’ll order another happiness cake.