I am going to Disneyland today. And while I doubt I'm the only twenty-something headed to the park for the chance to be a kid again, I feel I have an even greater excuse to partake in the magic: Today I am celebrating my 7th birthday.
I was born on February 29th and in my 28 years of life, I have celebrated 7 birthdays. I am a leap year baby.
For most of my childhood I touted my rare birthday as my defining characteristic. As a middle child in a lively band of two brothers and a sister, being born on Leap Day made me special by default. My birthday set me apart, and to some extent I built my identity around its uniqueness.
It's not an exaggeration to say that my birthdate has significantly influenced the person I've become. I'm not talking about astrology or the Chinese calendar (though if you're a Scorpio and Dragon, call me -- Pisces, Year of the Rat right here). I'm thinking more of instances like the placement test I was administered when I was 5 years old that ended with the question, "What day occurs only once every four years?" I answered with an exuberant "my birthday!" and clarified the date, and my future on the honors track was set in motion. Had I been born a day later I may never have made it into the Gifted Program where we got to build bridges out of toothpicks and talk about our feelings every Thursday. My life would be so different.
I was fortunate to grow up in a household where everyone felt celebrated. For every birthday, a banner would go up and the birthday boy or girl would get to choose what we had for dinner. My mom would make a cake, and everyone would sing. And every four years on my "real" birthday my mother would buy a thick number-shaped candle that signified my leap year age, and I had a day of my very own. It didn't really occur to me until I was in school and started meeting children whose birthdays were on February 28th or March 1st that I literally didn't have a day to call mine for three out of every four years.
As much as I loved being an anomaly, there was a certain heartbreak that came with not having an actual birthday. This was especially apparent during my adolescent years when birthdays carried an added social weight with Bar Mitzvahs and Quinceaneras around every corner. I felt left out and passed over when there was no space to fit me in between the 28th and 1st. Lucky for me, these were the years my father went above and beyond to make me feel special. Every off year was spent just the two of us with a date to the Hard Rock Café and a trip to a local theme park. This was a serious luxury in my family, and those father-daughter dates formed some of my favorite memories.
When a leap year did come around, however, I felt added pressure I felt to make sure my birthday was over-the-top amazing. I had to fill February 29th with enough celebration to last me the four years until the next one. (Many thanks to the friends and family members who have put up with my insane excitement leading up to the "real" birthdays.) My 16th birthday will be remembered as a casualty of the high stakes pressure I put on myself (and my mother -- sorry, Mom). That was the day I learned that no birthday, DJ, live band, or cute boy would ever live up to my leap year expectations. I insisted on an obscenely large rec room we couldn't fill or afford, a dance floor, and a ska/punk band made up of boys I desperately wanted to impress And after all of that, the best part of that birthday was the moment my best friend, snuck in by friends while NO ONE was dancing, popped out of a box to surprise me. She had told me she wasn't coming, adding to the list of expectations that wouldn't be met, and then out she popped. She knew I loved surprises, and the happiness I felt when she burst out of cardboard set a new standard for my birthday. It taught me that, ultimately, the thing I wanted most out of the day was to be thought of. Per usual, my parents had it right all along: Nothing beats feeling loved.
Now in my 28th year of life, I still approach my birthday with the same excitement I did when I was a 7-year-old, but with a little less pressure and a few more candles. Some things will never change: I will never understand people who "don't care" about their birthdays. I will always love to answer the question, "How old are you?" Leap Year references will always make me smile, and I will forever feel a kinship with other leap year babies, even the ones I haven't met. (I'm talking to you, one-time rap sensation Ja Rule.)
I once read in that people born on February 29th are "forever young," and my birthday is probable responsible for the fact that I still approach my life with childlike excitement and wonder. I love having the excuse to "act my age" every once and a while. So today, armed with the experience of 28 years and the attitude of a 2nd grader, I will be spending my birthday with my best friends, laughing my way through the happiest place on earth and, if I'm lucky, blowing out a candle in the shape of a 7.