BETTER THAN CAKE, CANDLES OR GIFT WRAP

It was always about presents. That’s the thing I most remember. You started thinking about your birthday weeks in advance, mostly through the eyes of “What am I gonna get?”

One year it was a magic trick. One year it was an Etch A Sketch. One year a new basketball. One year a record player.

I remember less about the parties, who came, who didn’t, who wished me well, who wasn’t around. I was a child, and I thought as a child. My eyes were on the prize. I still can feel the stomach-shivering excitement when my eyes popped open in bed that morning. I still can remember poking around in my parents’ closet, in case they hid the present in there.

The sensation of unwrapping a box – that I can recall. But the year? The age? The number of candles on the cake? The faces behind the voices that sang me “Happy Birthday”? That I couldn’t tell you.

That was then.

Munch, munch, munch

I celebrated a birthday last week. And I can blessedly say, when it comes to toys, even the adult kind, I have all I could want. They don’t interest me as much as they used to, anyhow.

My birthday these days, like many people my age, is less about “What am I gonna get?” and more about “How am I gonna feel?” How’s the heart rate? How’s the cholesterol? How’s the weight? How’s the vision? How am I holding up?

And lately, “How much time do I have left?”

I have written in this space before how my birthday ritual is to eat everything I don’t eat all year round – for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between. And I can happily report I kept my face-stuffing tradition alive.

But I noticed something else this year. Early in the morning, my phone rang. It was a family member from overseas, wishing me a happy birthday. We had a nice chat. Then I checked my e-mail. My brother, who also lives overseas, had gotten a jump on the day with a 5 a.m. posting. He teased me about how old I was getting (he’s the youngest). It made me smile.

As the day went on, the phone rang again and again. A sister-in-law. Another sister-in-law. Another sister-in-law. (I have a lot.) Two brothers-in-law. My nephews.

I opened an e-mail from a Realtor-turned-friend who was in Las Vegas. Happy birthday. I got an e-mail from a couple who I don’t get to see enough. Happy birthday. Got voice mails on my answering machine from family, cousins, people in the business, a publisher in Brazil who is lovely and emotional and signs her notes “with many hugs and kisses.”

She, too, wished me a happy birthday.

A Hollywood ending

My parents called during the day, and we spoke nostalgically. I was eating in a restaurant when my cell phone rang and I heard the voice of my oldest friend in life. We have known each other since we were in strollers. He lives in North Carolina now, but, somehow, he remembered the date.

There were cards, simple and funny, from relatives who lived many miles away. There were notes from readers and people in a volunteer group I work with. A few family members who were within reach spent most of the day with me, eating and having fun. It seemed to be a steady stream of voices – voices, not gifts – just checking in, wishing me well.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Usually in a column you try to take something from the news and make a point that hopefully enlightens. My birthday is hardly news. And the only enlightening thing I can share is this:

As my day went on, I found myself flashing on the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where George Bailey’s friends and family come to help him in his hour of need. As they surround him, he opens a card – sent from his angel, Clarence – and the handwritten message is clear and simple:

“No man is poor who has friends.”

I would like, in this space, to thank mine. I didn’t feel old this past birthday. I felt rich.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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