For as long as I can remember, I have spent my birthday night with family. Some days, my birthday fell on Thanksgiving, and we enjoyed turkey and stuffing and cake. Most birthdays, though, involved dinner out with my parents, brothers and, most recently, Rama. It’s a tradition I have grown to love.
When I found out my brother Ricky and his girlfriend Brooke were going to be in town for my 30th birthday and the holiday weekend, I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to add two to the dinner reservation. I imagined a nice meal out, followed by cake at home and games through the wee hours of the morning.
The plan was this: Rama would come pick me up at 6:30, we’d drive to my parents’ house in OC and we’d go to one of my favorite seafood restaurants. In the car, Rama asked me if I knew what I was going to order. “Hmm…maybe some grilled shrimp,” I said. “Or fish. And mashed potatoes!”
“Do you think your mom will have cake?” he asked.
“If she doesn’t,” I said, “it just means we can order dessert.” I was quite satisfied with this answer. I was hungry, too.
The drive was a bit long and the traffic was kind of awful, but we made it. As I pulled into my parents’ housing complex, I noticed a mass of people standing by the clubhouse. It was hard not to notice them, actually. There were at least 20 or 30 people just milling about. I wondered what was going on at the clubhouse but not enough to get suspicious.
As I drove up closer, though, a few of them walked toward the street and a couple leapt right in our path. “What the @^*!?” I exclaimed to Rama. Just then, a cousin of mine came into view. And then another and another and–OH MY GOSH! It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a party. A birthday party. For me.
My cousins offered to park my car, so I got out and slowly greeted all these people from all corners of my life–Mom, Dad, Ricky, Brooke. Aunties, uncles, cousins. Friends from grade school, friends from college, friends from church. They all came to celebrate my 30th birthday. In Orange County. On a Tuesday night. I felt tongue-tied and starry-eyed and overwhelmed with all this love.
As if that wasn’t surprise enough, there was more.
At the bottom of a beautiful pile of gifts was a box wrapped in red paper and yellow starred ribbon. It was from Rama. He’d told me earlier that I probably knew what it was, but when I lifted it off the ground I realized I didn’t have a clue. It was heavy.
Tearing off a sliver of paper revealed a yellow wooden box. Tearing off more revealed a gorgeously hand-painted box. “The We Love Christine Box,” it said in hand-drawn letters above an illustration of me as a little girl dressed as Wonder Woman. Inside, there were gorgeous paintings, letters, photographs, stories, poems, music mixes and trinkets. Each was a treasure in and of itself, and together it was like an archaelogist’s dream discovery come true. So much history and heart.
Beyond the obvious, there were some beautiful things about the whole affair. Like how Rama had been planning this surprise since my 28th birthday but I unknowingly beat him to the punch with a similar surprise last year. Or how my friend Carrie, who’s 7 months pregnant, drove from San Diego because it broke her heart to be anywhere else. Or how my 89-year-old grandmother contributed stories from my childhood that even I’d forgotten.
Everything about my 30th birthday was pure magic, not because of what people gave me, but because of who those people have been. I am who I am because of them. They celebrated me, but I don’t know if they realize that in doing so they were also celebrating themselves.