Birthdays, they come around year after year for us lucky ones still celebrating life. And my turn is coming around soon. I feel as if I’m holding my breath this year. Last year was such a beautiful experience that I can’t help but spend my time reminiscing. The family rarely brought on much excitement over birthdays, with my grandmother as the exception, she always would take the birthday celebrant out to an extravagant five star dinner. Most birthdays were spent in a yelling match with the celebrant being screamed at for being selfish or self-centered on their day. My mother would usually delight in preparing a cake and putting up streamers, but usually only a handful of friends were allowed to be invited and the few that did come, were hard-pressed to come back after witnessing a yelling match. Didn’t even get a chance to have a 16th birthday after a fight with mother, the most important birthday of a girls childhood was taken away as a punishment for being ungrateful.
I guess, what I’m getting at is I don’t expect much for birthdays. Maybe that is why last year’s celebration was so memorable. The night before my birthday, I was up waiting for Shiva to return home from a typical late night studying for his engineering exams. I had put the baby to bed, cleaned up, and knew just when to start dinner and tea. It was this common scene of a clean home, lit candles, and burning incense that welcomed Shiva home on this day. He walked into the kitchen to compliment me on the fresh hot soup and tell me how much he loved that familiar smell of cardamom drifting up from the cup of Chai.
This night was different. He hugged me and thanked me as he always did. He complimented me as he always did and then he dragged me over to the couch completely ignoring our meal. I was confused, I begged him to let me fix a bowl of soup for us and he grabbed my hands and denied the request. He sat me down and kissed me and told me I was beautiful. Then he told me to wait right where I was and he went outside. I sat on the couch glancing out the window, but couldn’t see him in the dark. Then he peaked in the front door and told me that I needed to go put on pants and a long shirt, and shoes with good traction. What?
“Don’t ask any questions, just go, hurry.” He said. So I went in the room and put on a pair of comfy sweatpants and a sweatshirt over my grungy night t-shirt. I put on my sneakers, as good of traction as any other shoes I owned and came back out to see him, outfitted for a hike. “Those pants won’t work and neither will the shirt, something different,” he criticized, “go put on jeans.” I was a little bit frustrated, and probably a bit hungry. “Our food is getting cold.” I replied. “Just do it,” he said shortly. I returned in a pair of jeans, a different sweater and grabbed my corduroy jacket. “Better, that will do.” He said, “Now lets go.”
“Go where?!” I pretty much shouted at him, “did you forget there is a baby sleeping, we can’t leave her alone.” Then he revealed that our housemate had agreed to keep a watch on my daughter. “Now, lets go.” He said again, this time dragging me out of the door. “Oh wait,” he said, “I forgot something.” The confusion really was beginning to aggravate me. He pointed off at a tree and exclaimed “Look!” Of course, I did, and saw nothing. I turned back at him and he was pointing at his watch. “Look at that.” I looked and said, “yeah its midnight, so?” Then he kissed me and said, “Happy Birthday.”
Then he grabbed my hand and began walking. We walked and walked, I think at the end we walked a little more than a mile. The whole time I kept asking him where we were going, what we were doing. And the whole time, I was wished happy birthday, kissed, and told to be patient for my surprise. Finally, we arrived at the base of the university’s basketball stadium. He pointed at it excitedly, “here we are, do you like it?”
“A stadium, you brought me to a closed basketball stadium for my birthday, in the middle of the night?” He brought me to wall and said, “Sort of. Do you remember telling me what your greatest phobia is?” I thought, well, I only have one great phobia, falling to my death. I answered him. He knew very well about this fear. He had been awakened many times by my repeating dream of falling to my death. He also knows that I hold an irrational belief that I died by falling in a past life and that I’m not afraid of heights, so much as falling. He also knew that when I described what I fell off, it wasn’t a mountain or a skyscraper, or a bridge, but a white building. He pointed back to the white stadium before us and said, “We are going to climb it.”
I laughed, surely he’d lost his mind. Surely he knew that there was no chance of me climbing a white building like the one from my nightmare with the awareness of said nightmare in the middle of the night on my birthday. And surely, I should have known, that when Shiva puts his mind to something, he is not easily swayed.
Before long, I was climbing ahead of him, holding onto a thick metal cable that ran along the drain pipe. he informed me that the cable I was holding is what the work crews tie their safety cables to. Being that we were climbing the drain, pipe the surface was a little bit wet and slippery. My hands were sweating and all I could think is, “I’m going to die, my daughter is at home and I’m so stupid to climb the side of this building, and I’m gonna die. What are they going to tell her? Your mother fell off a stadium? We don’t know why she was there. We don’t know what she was doing. There was no note, was it a murder, a suicide, an accident.” I got about half way up the drain pipe and just froze.
I told Shiva that I couldn’t go any further. I couldn’t lift my leg, I couldn’t move. I didn’t look down, but I just felt like my whole body had turned to stone. He was behind me and promised me that even if I slipped and fell, he was beneath me and he’d catch me. He promised that he’d climbed the route we were climbing before and I’d be safe. Then he reminded me that my birthday gift was at the top and it was 100% worth the climb. I felt my body relax, things felt lighter and I thought, Well, I’ve made it this far.
I don’t know how long we climbed, but eventually we reached the top of the drain pipe. To my surprise there was a ladder at the top. I hadn’t seen it from the ground, but I grabbed onto the ladder and pulled myself up on the a platform that was completely invisible from below. I sat down and had a good panic spell complete with dizziness and hyperventilating. Shiva pulled himself onto the platform with a proud smile on his face. We sat for a few moments while I composed myself and he commented on the beautiful night. He pulled a bottle of water from his backpack and offered me a drink. Once I calmed down, I asked him where this supposed birthday present was. He pointed up, “We haven’t reached the top yet, you don’t get present just for getting halfway.”
He’s joking. I thought. But no, he wasn’t. We walked along side the platform until we reached another ladder about a quarter of the way around the building. It rose vertically to the top of the dome. It didn’t look that far from the platform, but then I made the mistake of looking down. Shiva smiled at me and said, “What are you looking down here for? Come on, you are almost there.” He could tell that I was starting to freeze up again, “You aren’t going to die tonight, I wouldn’t let that happen. Just take one foot ahead of the other.” Finally, reached the top of the stadium which had a concrete slope for a roof. There was an edge around the slope maybe a few inches high. I thought, “If I slip, I’m going to slide right off the edge.” Shiva crawled up after me and led me up to the top of the slope where we rested against a wall. He pulled me into his arms and kissed me. “Happy Birthday, do you like your present?”
“What present?” I asked. He gestured all around.
“You’ve climbed up really high.”
“Yes, well, you helped me.”
“All I did was come up behind you and reassure you, but you did it, you climbed up here. You thought you might die if you ever did something like this, it was your greatest fear. And now, you know that you can climb all the way up here, take some time to look around, and enjoy the moment. And you know that your life is in your own hands and you aren’t going to die. You have overcome your greatest fear. Happy Birthday.” He pulled out two wine glasses and a bottle of wine. “Let’s toast to your birthday.”
We did. “To reaching new heights.”