It’s my fifth birthday. I am wearing a yellow paper crown that I got at school that day. It reads “It’s my Birthday!” in black felt tip ink. I am wearing a pink and white floral print dress. My straight, shoulder-length hair has a strawberry blonde hue. The flash from the camera is too bright and I look a little like a ghost. I am wearing well-loved white summer sandals. The living room has rust colored shag carpet, an earth toned, striped couch, and rough, tweed-style upholstered chairs. My head is tilted way back as I look at the camera, and I am wearing a smile that I recognize as being a beneficence to the picture-taker. In it, I appear to be saying: Yes, I am happy! Yes, I am having fun! Yes, it’s a wonderful birthday! I am opening a large present, wrapped in white paper with colorful balloons printed on it. While I can’t remember, all these years later, what was in the box, I can recall the feeling that radiates from the picture, the truth I would hide inside for decades to come. I am not happy. I am not having fun. I’m scared. I don’t understand what’s happening here and I’m not sure what to do.
As I hold the aging photo, the feeling of that moment floods me. It’s Wednesday, 5 or 6pm, and mom, the picture taker, present procurer, and cake buyer, is exhausted. My father, the charming raconteur and consummate salesman, is anywhere but here. It’s dinner time and mom hasn’t had a chance yet to fix anything. We will have leftovers, eat cake, and force mirth.
In the background of this photo my 14 year old sister is sitting in an easy chair in front of the television, watching something I can’t make out. It’s an old-fashioned TV - the kind on which you have to turn an actual dial. The kind with rabbit ears that connect with your body so that, on some occasions, the station only comes in clearly if the human body is touching the antennae, and if you are unlucky enough to be the designated rabbit-ear adjuster, you may have to stand there until whatever important piece of television that your family wants to see breaks for commercial.
Never before had I considered that the act of Chloe watching TV while I was opening my birthday present spoke volumes. Now I see her hurt-turned-impotent-rage as one of the many cracks in the foundation - a foundation that would eventually turn to rubble, then dust. What could be held together with safety pins and spit in 1980 would not survive the Reagan era.
My mother’s frantic energy- required to raise us, keep up the house, feed the family, and rise in the ranks at her job - is the vibration here. Where she filled in the cracks with doing, my father chipped away at them with his many appetites. She sewed personalized Christmas stockings while he nearly immolated the house with a “controlled” grass burn. Where once a picture perfect family of three stood in front of their beautiful home, this new family of four would split up the matchbooks and cutlery before moving out of it. It felt like a party to which I had arrived embarrassingly late, the food mostly eaten, the guests all drunk, and the glamour turned ugly in the harsh light of day.
My sister’s pose - leg up, arm draped over the armrest - encapsulates for me something I have always felt and have struggled to articulate - I do not matter. I was not hoped for, not planned, and my arrival onto the scene precipitated a series of changes that forged a clear path to my sister’s death by alcohol poisoning. On my first actual birthday (the day of my birth), we lived in Salt Lake City in a gorgeous, huge house near the top of a hill with beautiful, sweeping views. Chloe, 9, attended Catholic school, was a good student, and had many friends. By the time I turned one, everything had changed.
Like many people when a newborn enters their world, what Chloe got with me was a far cry from the powdered and gurgling happiness she had imagined while I was still waiting to emerge. The pictures tell this story, too. In one, I am a newborn and she is holding me, truly beaming. In another, she is laughing at me as I am covered in chocolate cake. My favorite is a photo of us in the pool, her standing, holding me up high as I swing my joyful body into the air. Then, by the time I turn four, the tenor of the pictures changes. Her smile is tighter, more forced. You can tell that there is still love there, but also that the act of loving, the experience of it, came at a great cost to her. As the years go on, there are fewer pictures of us together. Sisterly portraits are relegated to special occasions, and even then, not always. The last pictures we took together were at my wedding, and the look in her eyes is positively vacant. Appropriately, she wore black. It marked the end of our relationship.
Today I turn 46. Birthdays remain a mixed bag for me. There are usually some high points among the regular banality of it all, but I almost never take photos. Often, I’ll wonder what the next year will bring and how I might change and grow. I have only recently begun to face the stories told in the pictures of my childhood. For so long, I have wanted to see them as part of a story that I had already worked through - old news. I have wanted to believe that the events of my early life are no longer consequential to my present one. I have tried to see beauty where there was sadness and to see cohesion where there was discord.
This practice of looking at old things in a new light and finding the places that I abandoned myself, when I told myself I didn’t matter, is a necessary one that also scares me to death. If I do matter, then I have to show up for myself and others. If I am someone, then I have to live up to my oft-discussed potential. If I am in control of my destiny, then it is up to me to make smart and effective choices, guided by own moral compass, not in reaction to anyone else’s. It’s curiously much harder to live this way and the weight of the responsibility to make something of myself feels leaden.
Tonight, my family will take me out to dinner. They will no doubt celebrate me. I will receive cards and gifts and hugs and kisses. I will probably not wear a paper crown, but I will try to carry the self-celebratory message nonetheless. I am grateful that there are people who show up for me, especially when I can not do that for myself. I am grateful that, though it took me awhile to get to this party, it’s not too late, it’s not over. I am not picture perfect, but I do matter.