Today I am 21 years old. Today my age limitations are pared down. I’ve reached the age where I can now do everything except rent a car or get senior discounts at the movie theatre. I know, this is the part where my mother chimes in and bemoans how quickly time flies and rather than saying “stop it, Mom, you’re embarrassing me!” I’d have to agree, time did fly.

It seems like just yesterday I was excitedly anticipating eating the bunny on the birthday cake for my 6th birthday only to find out once my party guests arrived that the bunny was not edible. Even though I’ve had a host of incredible and enriching experiences since that birthday, it sort of feels like the little me that wanted to eat the bunny is the same (slightly bigger) me that did eat the Dome of the Rock on my Mt. Moriah cake. (I was named after Mt. Moriah with a spelling change.)

Birthdays are always interesting for me, my expectations are always high, not for the people around me, but for what it will feel like to be one year older and wiser. With this one day in my life when my expectations are held up so high on such unreliable threads, it inevitably becomes a day of disappointment.

I’ve had beautifully thoughtful birthday acknowledgements. Every year growing up, it was a chance to get to go out with my parents to dinner, just me and them, and I got to pick the place. One birthday, the place was Red Robin and while I was bouncing in a booth with a crayon in my hand, I accidently made permanent marks on the bill of my new hat. I’d like to say that happened on my sixth birthday or even my eighth, but I was still into bouncing in booths with crayons on my 12th birthday.

At 15, the place was the Rainforest Café and I got my face painted like a pink leopard and got to do a photo shoot as a jungle cat. The pictures printed out as stickers, and to this day every time I clean my room, I find those stickers and wonder what to do with them. They were such a novelty and so exciting to get, but there are only so many surfaces I can handle having jungle-cat-me staring at every-day-me from.

Every year on the eve of my birthday, I put my hair into something that I hope will turn out to be voluminous curls and every birthday morning I wake up looking like Captain Hook in the worst way. I tie my hair back into some remedial attempt at femininity and put on some nice get-up hoping the outfit will distract from the hair and open the front door ready to take on the world. At 16, I opened that door to see that a boy I liked had decorated my front porch, my car, even the cul-de-sac that we live in. When I saw him at school, I threw my arms around him and he told me later that he’d never seen me look so happy, and that he’ll never forget that smile on my newly 16-year-old face.

But the big elaborate birthday gestures (from people outside my family who have no reminder to celebrate) have been fairly few. I walk cautiously here because I’m gingerly treading the line between observer and ingrate, but it means so much to me for my friends to remember my birthday that one year when one friend remembered and she brought me a bag of chocolate Twizzlers (that may have been for something else or just all she had in her pantry) I carried them around all day. When my creative writing classmates saw them and starting throwing the bag around and joking about how gross those are, I almost burst into tears. I actually agree that chocolate Twizzlers are gross, but at least she remembered, even with the ribbon around them my creative writings buddies forgot.

There is something so beautiful and meaningful about an unsolicited gesture of kindness on your birthday. It means not only that someone is grateful you were born, but it also means that they’ve noticed you since then. When I walked in to the house from working in the library on the 23 March (I was born 2 minutes into the 24th) and I saw a cardboard cut-out of Michael Jackson six feet tall and then started as the lights flipped on and everybody yelled “Surprise!”, balloons flying and ‘Billie Jean’ playing in the background, I think that 16th birthday smile was revisited and improved.

I guess I always thought that if there was ever a surprise party thrown for me, I’d have known about it, but I was truly taken off guard. Seeing the innovation and effort that it took to create a cake shaped like Mt. Moriah and hearing everyone tell me one at a time what they appreciate about me was a memory I’ll carry with me for the next 21 years and the 21 years after that.

So today rather than grappling with the sure-to-be-disappointed expectations of a birthday transformation, I am instead grateful. I am grateful to have lived and loved for this long and for the richness my 21 years of experience have been blessed with. To my life and the people in it to this point, and the people that will yet make an entrance, I’d like to say in the words of MJ himself, “you’re just a product of loveliness.” Long live living!