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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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The first time I ever celebrated my birthday alone was the year I turned 30. Up until then I’d been surrounded by loved ones. Cake. Bunting. Gift wrap and bows. Cards from Grandma with money tucked inside. Parties stuffed into our small bachelor apartment in Toronto, the warmth of the reverie making the windows fog in the cold December air. Every year from one to 29 was the same: surrounded by laughter and candles. Then 30 happened, and birthdays, as I knew them, ceased to exist.

There were no more cards from Grandma, and I had moved out of that apartment, now a bachelorette in my own right. I fled to the other side of the world to get as far away from the pitying looks of my family and friends, as far away from my old life, as I could.

My 30th birthday was in the Australian outback – Uluru. The sky was sombre. The rock didn’t glow orange like it did in the picture postcards. It was brown, purple even. The lichen was wet and dark, and swift, unrelenting waterfalls poured off the stone. I circled its base, trudging in my rain jacket and my soggy sneakers, my head lost in a different distant universe where I was still happy in that apartment, wearing a party dress with my spouse’s hand around my waist.

That night, I slept alone in an olive green canvas tent, on a folding cot raised off the ground that I hoped would deter spiders and snakes. The mother of a young family camping at the site next to mine helped me pitch my tent, and her daughter unbeknownst gave me my only gift that year: a cheap, battery-operated touch lamp. Its smooth plastic dome gave way in a satisfying “click” when pushed. It washed the dark surroundings with fluorescent light. Nobody baked me a cake that year, and I felt more alone – but perhaps more alive – than I ever had before.

For 31, I was on Antigua, a tiny Caribbean island. This was the year I learned to be vulnerable. The year I worked up the gumption to invite perfect strangers from my hostel out for pizza and beers. The restaurant served me a lava cake that we all passed around, each taking modest spoonfuls. We sat at a picnic table on a humid patio, played rounds of pool and then I went home with a man 10 years my junior.

Thirty-two was in Mozambique, at a small scuba diving resort on the beach. By now, birthday vulnerability was second nature, and I told them I was here to celebrate – solo – when I checked in. I had come to swim with beautiful, gargantuan whale sharks but saw none, and I lost my underwater camera in a strong current. But their chef made me a lime cake with creamy coconut icing and garnished it with mint leaves. I shared it with everyone else who was eating at the restaurant that night.

“Wow!” someone remarked. “They made you a cake? They must really like you!”

I’m not all that special, but I think people can tell when you’re revealing your soft, tender underbelly and hoping that they’ll be gentle. I ate that lime cake, baked with compassion, and slowly savoured every bite.

My most recent birthday, 33, I spent in India along the Ganges riverbanks, not so far from the Himalayas, at a quiet yoga shala painted with garish green walls.

“It’s my birthday tomorrow!” I announced to my fellow classmates, no longer second-guessing if I should be shy. They bought me a cake from the local bakery, soft and fluffy and vanilla.

“We don’t blow out candles here,” the staff warned, months before our pandemic sensibilities kicked in. Instead, a metallic foil cone was perched on top of the piped frosting, pluming sparks and smoke. We ate the cake off of our metal plates, having already washed off the dhaal and chutney we’d eaten for dinner, then made a run for the front gates. Wrapped in wool sweaters and cashmere scarves to stave off the mountain chill, we linked elbows and strolled past roaming cows and untethered dogs, crossed the bridge over Mother Ganga, and bartered for strings of mala beads and singing bowls. The day after my birthday in Rishikesh, I cried through my morning asana practice, coming down off the soaring high of the day before. When I laid down in savasana, tears ran down my temples and wet the wisps of hair that had escaped my ponytail.

For this birthday, 34, I had considered hiking solo in Patagonia. Had mused of dogsledding beneath the aurora in Scandinavia. Had dreamed up a cycling trip through the hills of Vietnam, slurping hot bowls of pho along the way. Instead, I stayed close to home with my bubble and waved to friends through a computer screen. I didn’t really have a choice but to celebrate in companionship instead of independence.

I love my friends, adore my family, but their affection is a given, a non-negotiable expectation. To celebrate a birthday by yourself – in the company of people you’ve met only hours before, who get quiet when it’s time to sing your name but sing you Happy Birthday anyway – is to restore your faith in humanity. It reminds you that these years we spend circling the sun are all joyous in their own way, even the ones after you close the door one last time at a bachelor apartment.

On birthdays, we wish to be reminded that we are loved and cared for. But what could be a greater reminder that we are worthy of love than to be shown compassion by a perfect stranger? Alone birthdays were some of my happiest. They call back to our births, when we enter this world cold and afraid and screaming, only to be swaddled and wrapped up in the arms of strangers who are eager to hold us.

By now, nearly everyone has celebrated a COVID-19 birthday. There’s been parades of honking cars rolling slowly down streets. Zoom calls of singing Happy Birthday over shoddy internet connections. Cakes delivered by UberEats.

For many, I imagine, these are the loneliest birthdays they’ve had in recent memory. But this was the least alone birthday I’ve had in years, and I missed spending it in a non-lonely solitude.

Ellie Clin lives in Waterloo, Ont.