HAVANA TIMES, April 13 —Not long ago my mother turned 71. An event that mattered to few but made me reflect deeply.
Not that I am thinking about the irreversible burden of time that mercilessly ravages the body and by extension the mind and dreams.
No, it is not that: I remember the sort of feeling of immunity she gave us, my sisters and me, when we were little.
Somehow we were convinced that when it is your birthday, you are untouched by fate, and only the good or the marvelous has permission to enter that space in the course of twenty-four hours.
When I was a little girl and my mother made a tremendous effort to celebrate with some kind of a party (inevitably assisted by refreshments, rolls and candies that came from the ration book), everyone around me would be a conspirator in the magic bubble, but I never realized it was a hoax.
Time taught me, slowly or quickly (I don’t even remember now), that fate has no holidays and destiny does not distinguish between joy and misfortune, because it’s only our interpretation in the neutral avalanche of events.
And one of my birthdays, after waiting for someone who never came, I decided to ignore the date from then on, and accept it as just another day and not entertain expectations that can be undone so easily.
I was never quite able to manage it, partly because of my own desire not to miss this annual show of deference but also because there is always someone close who insists on reminding you. Out of love, or from inertia? …Who knows?
A TIME OF CHANGE
Anyway, as I learned this lesson, paradoxically I myself remembered the birthdays of friends and family and played at creating little bubbles of security for them.
Amid the crisis of the 90s, which affected everything from ideals to the quality of the birthday cards, from hospitality to the taste and consistency of the candy, I discovered that I almost never had money to buy gifts and that the arts and crafts work I used to make as presents, had become my means of survival.
Without mentioning it to anyone, the gifts from me to my friends and relations disappeared.
My mother went on perpetuating her complicity in the mirage for her children and grandchildren. With whatever she could get her hands on: a crafts piece, a home-made sweet, a dollar saved up a coin at a time and that let you savor the taste of a Nestlé ice cream …
Most of my friends emigrated and I lost contact with them. I do not know why, but with the ones that have stayed behind, I have hardly cultivated the habit of remembering their birthdays nor do they mine.
With my mother I maintain the mutual conspiracy, but it is easy with her because any little gesture is enough: a small package of coffee (even if it is “mixed”), a book, a flower, a drawing.
However, on that recent Thursday, noticing her sadness, because the phone failed to ring and with it the voice of my younger sister, who now lives in Miami, for the first time I felt sorry for never having shared my experience of the fragility of birthdays, that implacable reality that the bubble can burst and vanish in the air.
THE BEST GIFT
I once read that some Aboriginal Australians, when they heard about this ritual of celebrating birthdays, reacted quite bewildered. As far as they were concerned it was absurd to celebrate getting older, as this happens naturally and even involuntarily.
They celebrate, for example, the achievement of a skill or a virtue obtained through the practice of the will. The person being honored changes his or her name to one that expresses the gift obtained.
In India there is the noble precept that birth in a physical body is incomplete without the soul, that is, when it is initiated on a spiritual path by a Master. That’s where the journey of the soul (or consciousness) back to God begins, and for them this is the real birth.
But even this knowledge does not make it any easier to uproot the rituals we inherit and which are part of a tacit conspiracy in which many people are involved.
Once when I became a mother and it was my son’s birthday, the strength of tradition and the protective instinct made me reproduce the fallacy of happiness and security even though it had created so much contradiction in me.
Right up until the day he was twelve. He woke up sick that morning and spent all day with very high fever, clearly not feeling well.
Soon after, he told me, “Mom, birthdays are not special days, that’s a lie. On your birthday, anything can happen.”
That was when I felt relieved of the weight of the millennium. I told him what I myself had learned: that dates are only a human convention for recording the passing of time.
For example, my old grocer told me that his cousin (the artist Belkys Ayon) committed suicide the day of her birthday, so he was never able to celebrate it again. From that fatal moment on, the date became one of mourning for the family.
For my part, I would be telling a lie if I omitted to say that I also received some amazing gifts at times for my birthday.
From the message from a friend I had not seen for years and that day let me know they remembered me, even the book I had been looking for and suddenly someone gave it to me as a present.
In the 90s of all times, I got an unforgettable one. On television I was watching an international news report on art that they showed on Sundays. As usual when the credits came up, there were messages like: Good luck to you today…
But precisely that day, the day of my birthday, the program was devoted to Van Gogh, who is one of my obsessions. That in itself was a gift but not only that, when it came to the end, an unusual phrase appeared on the screen: “Best wishes to those whose birthday is today.”
Therefore I would like to amend the title of this post and dedicate these thoughts to EVERYONE whether they are celebrating a birthday or not. Because deep down, celebrations are pretexts for us to remember that every day in itself is an opportunity, a gift.
And today I am celebrating the birthday of one of my cats …It is exactly ten years to the day that I helped him out of the womb because he was coming out backwards and was choking, ten years ago I cut the umbilical cord.
I know it is an event that doesn’t matter to most people. I know there is no immunity from fate.
But we have this moment to share it together, so I think back over the journey we have made together and let him know (he understands me) how happy I am to have assisted in the miracle that he is here today.