This year I blew out my birthday candles a week early. It’s the first time I’ve been away from my family for the big day, so before I left for Baltimore, we sang around a Publix cake on the kitchen island.
I used to look forward to my birthday. I loved walking downstairs to find a card and presents, my mom bringing cookie cake to my elementary school cafeteria, getting used to the shape of a different number in my mouth. I remember writing “DOUBLE DIGITS!!!!” in my diary on the day I turned 10.
Now it’s a decade later, and I’m ambivalent.
Getting older is scary. The other day I was walking by the Baltimore Museum of Art Sculpture Gardens on my way to class, and it hit me that I’m in my fourth semester of college. I couldn’t tell you why the realization took so long.
I’ve sat for plenty of finals, and I’ve watched the trees outside my dorm change color, lose their leaves and sag under the weight of snow. But none of it resonated until someone asked me my plans for junior year. Until my breath snuffed out the 20 candles on my birthday cake.
Even though time stagnates in my mind, my birthday is a reminder that the hands of the clock are always moving, whether I want them to or not.
And for a while, I did want them to. I yearned to fast forward through the awkward years of Goldfish crackers stuck in braces, sweaty thighs on vinyl bus seats, angry whiteheads between overplucked eyebrows.
I wasn’t alone in this desire. My best friend and I would pass a composition notebook back and forth on middle school mornings, sitting on the dusty gym floor as we waited for the bell, writing stories about the people we one day hoped to be.
I envied adults for the maturity they exuded and the respect they were afforded, and I thought time would be enough to give me both.
One day in middle school, in my fifth-period language arts class, we read the short story “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros. It was in the old, fat textbooks with glossy pages that sat beneath our desks, the inside covers graffitied with hearts and penises.
In “Eleven,” it’s the main character Rachel’s 11th birthday, but she doesn’t feel just 11. She feels all the ages before 11 inside of her, rattling around like “pennies in a tin Band-Aid box” or Matryoshka dolls.
That’s how 20 feels. When I call home as I’m crossing Wyman Quad to hear about my mom’s heirloom tomato plants or my dad’s great Wordle play, I am the 10-year-old who left sleepovers early. When I cry over the scones I’m making because the dough is all wrong, I am the 7-year-old who sobbed because she couldn’t do a ponytail. When my palms become sweaty as I speak to a classmate, I am the 3-year-old who hid behind adults’ legs.
I might have more maturity and respect now, but I still have all those old qualities inside me, rattling around. And when I hear the clatter of homesickness, exasperation or shyness — when a younger version of myself begs to surface — it is easy to believe that I’m not prepared for the moving hands of the clock. Or my fourth semester of college.
But I am. And the passage of time is gratifying as much as it is anxiety-inducing. Every day I get closer to the person I dreamed of on that gym floor. I have friends I love, I go to a great college and medical school now feels like a real possibility (I somehow did well in my first semester of Organic Chemistry).
I don’t talk to the best friend I shared that notebook with much anymore, because time can do that to friendships, but I know she’s doing great things, too. I’m really proud of both of us.
Though it’s difficult to face that as I age, so do my parents and other loved ones, I know that time is to thank for all the relationships and memories I’m so scared to lose — and all that have yet to be formed. I want my family to see me graduate, pursue a career I love, marry someone I love. But to get there, I’ll have to face a lot of birthday candles. That’s just the way it goes.
For my next birthday, probably after making a stop at Eddie’s, I’ll savor the bittersweet bites of buttercream and change. I know I’m lucky to taste it at all.
Abigail Tuschman is a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. majoring in Writing Seminars. She is the Voices Editor for The News-Letter. Her column documents the ups and downs of her college experience.