Essay: A tale of three cakes and the meaning of ‘Happy birthday’

Editorial writing lends itself more to righteous indignation than sentimentality, but I’m putting aside the usual spicy takes for something more saccharine this week. I think I had the best day of my life last Wednesday. Yes, really.

I turned 21 years old Feb. 22, a day better known for being National Margarita Day and the birthday of GW’s namesake. But neither the bevy of gifts I received nor the promise of my first legal (and first ever) drink made this day one for the record books. Sometimes, it’s the thought – and the simple act of appreciation – that counts.

My plan that evening mixed sophistication with simplicity – being fancy without being fussy. My dad would take the train from New Jersey to D.C. And after I’d spent a brief day in class, we’d catch a 5 p.m. performance of “Shear Madness,” an interactive murder mystery play, at the Kennedy Center. We’d round out the evening with dinner and drinks at Kingbird, an upscale restaurant nestled in the basement of The Watergate Hotel.

This Foggy Bottom-centric celebration was no bender, which was the point. When there are only 24 hours to celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, the possibilities – and the potential missteps – seem endless. To some, a 21st birthday means a combination of cheap vodka, cheaper orange juice and climbing into bed as the sun comes up. I’ve heard the tell of late nights on U Street full of drinking and dancing. But I’d rather have the presence of mind to enjoy my birthday – it only comes once a year, after all.

So off we went, somehow overdressed for the Kennedy Center in blazers and slacks, sticking out from the school trip crowd whose sweatpants and hoodies formed a grayish blob in the audience. But all of us in the theater watched with rapt attention as the four unlikely suspects at the core of the show’s whodunit gave their alibis. We laughed to the point of tears at their nonstop stream of jokes, malapropism and witty comebacks.

“Shear Madness” was sheer fun. Two hours after we took our seats, the actors took a bow to raucous applause, the stage lights came up and off we went to Kingbird. There were only a handful of other patrons, and we settled into a booth by the window overlooking the Rock Creek Park and Potomac Parkway. The occasional car whizzed past the window, red taillights cutting through tinted glass.

My dad, who turned 50 years old in January, produced a pair of reading glasses from his jacket pocket and navigated what must have been an impressive wine list. I assume so, anyway – he was firmly in control of the leather-bound menu, and it’s not like I, a heretofore teetotaler, would have known the difference.

A short time later, both of us clinked together our narrow glasses full of pale gold champagne, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame to be precise. The champagne tasted sweet and fruity alongside copious amounts of bread and butter, turned bitter as we worked our way through braised short rib and mushroom risotto and finally sweetened again by the time we had dessert. If getting carded by the waiter didn’t make it official, the small slice of red velvet cake garnished with Nutella ice cream, roasted strawberry sauce, a piece of chocolate that read “Happy Birthday” and a candle did – I was 21.

We walked the few blocks back to my apartment, and I ducked into the bedroom to change into pajamas. I opened the door to find my dad holding a plate with a somewhat-smushed chocolate chip Dunkin’ muffin on it. Two gold candles – a two and a one – were stuck into the muffin. They were unlit lest the smoke alarm go off. Behind him, hastily strung to the wall with tape, was a banner that read “Happy Birthday” in alternating gold and silver letters.

The best part of my night wasn’t “Shear Madness” or dinner at the Kingbird afterward – it was right then. It doesn’t take much besides money to snag tickets for a show or foot the bill for someone’s birthday dinner. But I would have never expected my dad, a self-proclaimed snob and egotistical maniac, to buy candles, a banner and a muffin. It was an utterly unexpected act of pure love.

What made my birthday so special was receiving the love of the people I know – a love that I forgot about over the past year. When you’re caught up in the daily grind of college, let alone a college newspaper, relationships start to slip. Your texts get terser and your phone calls get shorter. “I love you” becomes a three-word phrase to close out a conversation or slap a heart emoji next to. When you deal with thousands of words a week, what’s the big deal with eight little letters?

It took three words – “Happy birthday, Ethan” – for me to have the best day ever, a day that reminded me how much my friends and family cared about me. Before we took our seats at the Kennedy Center, the first well wishes had already trickled in Tuesday night. And when the clock struck midnight, a flurry of all-caps messages, rows of exclamation points and pixelated confetti danced across my screen. On Wednesday, I got even more texts, emails, calls and the occasional Bitmoji. And there was one more cake Saturday – a cookies and cream cake from Whole Foods. I didn’t even realize it was for me until my friends sat it down in front of me.

“Happy birthday” is a simple phrase that means so much. These two words remind us how the people closest to us cherish our company. It’s a sentiment that can bring tears to your eyes as easily as a shot without a chaser. And they’re two words that made all the difference on Feb. 22.

The chance to hear someone tell you “Happy birthday” comes but once a year. And when it does, the celebration is just the icing on the cake.

Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.

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