One year ago today, Matt turned forty. He celebrated his last birthday, his first in his fourth decade.
We started the day at the lake, taking the kids to the Labor Day carnival, and ended with a sugar free, gluten free, dairy free (Matt would add fun free) cake at home. We were in the thick of planning a week long birthday trip to Napa in October with a few friends, so Matt was happy to spend his actual birthday without too much fanfare.
His day wasn’t easy. At the lake, he was plagued with headaches, one coming on the heels of another. His neck pain made it difficult to turn his head during conversation to make eye contact with the people around him. And his double vision made the entire scene feel disorienting. I remember encouraging him to walk around and socialize, say hi to friends he hadn’t seen in a few weeks. When he couldn’t—his text to me: headache when I stood up, now I’m down—I sat beside him and wished, again, for a live stream video of what was happening in his head.
Our family tradition was to go to a hibachi restaurant to celebrate a birthday. In an effort to make the day more special for Matt, I decided to eschew our usual hibachi restaurant and try something new, something I hoped would be fun and special. But, I’ve already admitted that I should never, ever—truly ever—be in charge of making reservations so…
We left the Labor Day carnival early. The hibachi restaurant I chose shared a name with the fun, special hibachi restaurant I’d heard friends talk about—but it was not the same one. The restaurant was older, a little rougher around the edges, and the floor had a tendency to vibrate. I felt—simply—horrible. Matt was a good sport about it and seemed happy to just be with his kids and his parents and his amazingly-bad-at-reservations wife.
We went home for cake. Despite Matt’s jokes, he did like the cake (homemade by my sister) and was trying to eat less processed sugar.
My clearest memory of that night is of Matt, sitting across from me at the hibachi restaurant, the floor vibrating beneath him as the ventilation system worked to pull out the smoke, his head in his hands as he was battered by headache after headache.
No origin story of Matt and Elaine would be complete without the story of Matt’s twenty-seventh birthday, the first of his that we spent together. Matt invited everyone he knew to meet him at a bar he called The Green Lantern. Unfortunately, everyone he knew was away for the Labor Day weekend and no one could come. The bar was empty—of strangers and of friends. Only three of us showed up. Matt, his cousin, and me. Over the years, we talked about that failed birthday party often, joked about whether that was the day Matt realized he should get serious about our relationship because he had no other options.
Today, G, H, and I will celebrate Matt’s birthday without Matt for the first time. My thoughts will be dominated by firsts and lasts: the first of his birthdays we shared together, the last of his birthdays we shared together. And when I look back at all those firsts and lasts, I can see that not all our firsts were perfect. Certainly, all our lasts weren’t perfect.
I wish we had more birthdays together. I wish I hadn’t fumbled that last birthday and that we’d made it to Napa in October. I wish G and H didn’t have to start school today of all days.
I wish wishes worked the way they do in fairy tales.
I wish, but I don’t regret. I don’t regret any imperfect birthday we spent together.