Like everybody else in the western world, I remember where I was on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Like everyone else, I spent most of the day glued to the television, crying. Unlike everybody else, I got dressed up and went out to dinner at a local restaurant… to celebrate my birthday.
It’s been an ongoing joke through most of my adult life that my birthdays always suck. They just do. Many of my friends abandon me for the Toronto film festival, and plans have a tendency to not work out – like the time Greg and I planned a day at a museum and a nice restaurant for lunch, only to discover that both were closed. Last year, we were supposed to go see KISS at an outdoor concert the night before, but my allergies kept me trapped at home. So I woke up that morning in 2001 expecting my birthday to suck in some way. I just didn’t realize it was going to suck for the whole world.
Ten years later, I’m still not sure going out was a good idea. But we had a reservation for a dozen people and we didn’t really know what else to do. Being together seemed like a better thing than being alone. A few of us brought cell phones and throughout the sombre meal, phones would ring occasionally with news that another NYC friend was safe. A call from Carla to let us know she was home, but tired after walking to the Bronx from midtown. A shell-shocked Marcus, telling me that he had to walk past body parts on the ground outside his office near the Trade Centre, and hitch a ride back to New Jersey. Erika, who until only a month or so before, had been working at Deutsche Bank in one of the smaller buildings near the Trade Centre that collapsed from the force of the other buildings coming down, sat across from me, quietly shell-shocked.
It was a terrible evening.
In the following years, as the date would roll round again, I would consider what to do for my birthday. I hate the whole idea of “if we do/stop doing X, then the terrorists win”, and I was adamant that, hey, it was still my birthday before a bunch of idiots hijacked some planes. But popular opinion seemed to be that I shouldn’t acknowledge my birthday at all.
What with the whole “my birthday always sucks” thing, I wasn’t adverse to that idea. Except that people always had to talk about how horrible the whole thing was. Even now, when I have to give my date of birth for something, there’s always that weird pause, when I have to wait and see if I get a reaction, and then adjust my response appropriately.
Being the rebel that I am, though, once someone outright told me that I wasn’t allowed to celebrate my birthday, well, that’s when things changed.
We were living in a house and the couple on the first floor were expecting a baby. The due date was September 10th, 2003, and one night about a month beforehand we were talking to them about the upcoming birth. “I just hope she’s born on time!” the mother-to-be said emphatically. “I’ll just die if she’s born on that horrible day.” I asked why, pointing out that the birth of a new life shouldn’t be downgraded because of something that happened to other people somewhere else in the world. She was adamant, and when I confessed that my birthday was September 11th, and that I was planning on celebrating my birthday in some way, she grew visibly upset.
Fortunately for her, the baby was born on the 10th, but when the daughter’s first birthday rolled around and celebrations were planned, lady neighbour offered to bring me back a piece of her daughter’s birthday cake. “Oh, no, thanks,” I said, suspecting where the conversation was going. “I think Greg has ordered a cake.”
“Oh my god, you can’t have a cake ON THAT DAY! That’s horrible of you. To celebrate when so many people have died!”
Lady neighbour was not necessarily the sharpest knife in the block, and my protests that:
- people die every day
- people die in tragedies every day
- people are born every day
- celebrating the life of one person does not detract from the death of another, and most importantly
- I was not celebrating a tragedy but a completely unrelated event that had happened some 30+ years before
But it all fell on deaf ears. She was convinced that I was a horrible, terrible person for even considering putting myself first on my own birthday.
But come on… I have never heard of a worldwide moratorium of birthday celebrations on April 15 because of the Titanic. Would lady neighbour think to not celebrate something because it was the anniversary of the battle of Dieppe or the bombing of Hiroshima? Too long ago maybe? Okay then, lots of people loved Dean Martin and he died on Christmas Day in 1995. Are you all gonna do away with Christmas because you can’t get past your devotion to the rat pack crooner? Of course not.
I did not personally know anybody lost in the 9/11 attacks. Everyone I knew in the New York and DC areas made it home safe that day. I have no personal reason to mourn, other than in a general sense that comes with any kind of disaster (Katrina, Haiti, Japanese tsunami). I’ve written previously that I think most people really don’t know how to handle death and grief, especially in a larger public sense (Princess Diana, Jack Layton), and maybe, because we’ve seen it on TV, it feels more real, more important to us. But life still has to go on for the rest of the world.
I pointed out to lady neighbour that some 20,000 children die of starvation around the world every day. Including on her birthday, and her child’s birthday. If we’re truly going to mourn a tragedy – a tragedy that could easily be prevented – then she shouldn’t be having cake either. Ever. She stopped speaking to me for a while after that, and it wasn’t a great loss, let me tell you.
So yeah, I celebrate my birthday. It still seems to be jinxed; hilarity, miscommunication and other not so great developments regularly ensue. And it’s got nothing to do with the terrorists winning. In fact, I really do try to put all of that out of my mind, just like the folks who were born on April 15, or August 6 or December 6 or August 19 have had to do at some point as well. Mourning isn’t going to change anything. Why not celebrate my own life?