A Lasting Birthday Gift

Birthday gifts can be tough. Do you go for a classic option? Should you surprise them with something adventurous? At the end of the day—or year—what really matters is time.

There is a simple pine drawer in my bedroom, that is opened once a year, and in that simple pine drawer there is a red leather chest, that too remains shut, for every day of every year, except one. In that drawer there are neither things made of gold nor items fashioned from silver, or anything of value to the other 7 billion people on this planet, but to my family, it is something very precious—memories, years of memories.

It is the season for heavy rain and flooded streets in Dongguan. It is late as the rain thunders down as if manically escaping from something terrible lurking in the sky. I sit at my desk, pen in hand. At the top of the page is the date, and a few lines down on the left, two words which read, “Dear Faith” …

For the past decade, I have given to Faith the same gift for every birthday—a simple letter. On the first year I did this, the letter was accompanied by a red leather chest, in which to keep safe all the words from all the years. Flowers wither, money is spent, and chocolate melts, but words would last until we were grey and old, and all we had was a red leather chest to prove we had lived life together. In the letter, I will detail events from the year that was fading, some events that were major, even landmarks on the road we’ve chosen, some so small they would have been forgotten had they not been told in ink.

On the morning of Faith’s birthday, I will give her a typical gift, perhaps some shoes to add to her shockingly large collection; maybe a new dress to hang in her closet to absorb the dust and stop it from harming the clothes she chose. But her real gift she knows is already waiting for her, folded and placed in a red leather chest, which sits in a drawer that she can now open.

The important thing is to have someone to stand with you as you count off another year, mourn the fact that eternal youth is slipping through your fingers, all the while by being thankful that there is another year of memories.

Celebrating birthdays in China appears to be a mix of Chinese traditions and reenactments of things seen in Western movies and TV shows. As with most things in China, if it’s worth celebrating, then it’s celebrated through a large dinner.

On Faith’s last birthday, we had a meal where the restaurant manager brought some extra-long noodles, representing the wish for long life for the recipient. Following closely behind the extended noodles came a small baked cake, with a certain number of candles flickering passionately in the path of the air conditioner. Faith closed her eyes, blew out the candles, and made a wish, just like those people do in the movies.

My own birthday falls shortly before Faith’s, reducing the age gap between us to a year, much to her delight. When I was an 18-year-old and living in Israel, my friends held a surprise party for me. The next year I was also given a surprise party, and then again for the following four years, doing great harm to the authority of the word “surprise.” The biggest birthday shock was on my 25th birthday, when it passed with nothing more than some new cologne and a GAP shirt.

After reaching over the age of 30, an impending birthday tends to be more of a dark secret than something to celebrate. After a while, how another year passing is celebrated, no longer seems to be a matter of great significance. The important thing is to have someone to stand with you as you count off another year, mourn the fact that eternal youth is slipping through your fingers, all the while by being thankful that there is another year of memories, and waiting patiently in a red leather chest, in a simple pine drawer, is another letter.