Fourteen years ago, on Aug. 4, 2007, I celebrated my last happy birthday. The memory is still vivid: It was my eighth birthday, a big celebration; I remember seeing my mom’s workmates, my sister’s high school friends, and my dad’s friends in politics. I had no birthday cake at the time, but they still sang the birthday song for me before the party started.
None of the visitors were, in any case, related to me, but it was okay. At least I was finally having a birthday party—something I could brag about to my friends. It was the first time I felt like a star where everyone celebrated my best day ever. Little did I know that this birthday celebration wasn’t something I should be proud of having—for now it only reminds me of the last time I bonded with my family, and the last time I had a good memory with them.
The following year, my mom went abroad just two months before my ninth birthday. That year, my sister also entered college. As the eldest and the first in the family to step into college, she had to keep up with the demands and pressures of my parents and nursing school, and that included having no time with her siblings. That year was also when my brother had the time of his teenage life with friends. And that year was when my father wholly immersed himself in politics. I was left at home or at times in the streets, creating familial memories with people I did not know.
On my ninth birthday, my father told me we wouldn’t celebrate my birthday like the previous year since my sister had to pay tuition, and at that time, we were also still paying debts for my mom’s needs to work in Spain. I heard my parents the night before my birthday talking about how our rice farmland had to be mortgaged, so it was impossible for me to have something nice for my birthday. The day passed, and nothing happened. The nine-year-old me made a promise that I would never celebrate my birthday again. I lost hope. I lost a happy home. I lost my childhood.
Every year when they’d ask me: “O, malapit na birthday mo, may bisita ka ba? Paghahanda natin sila,” I would always reply, “Huwag na lang po.” I’d ask, “Si mama, uuwi ba?” and I will never forget my mom saying the exact same phrase every year whenever I’d ask her: “Anak, paano naman kayo? Sige nga gusto mo ba magkasama tayo tuwing birthday mo pero wala kang kakainin? Akala ko ba gusto mo ng PSP, paano ko mabibili ‘yan kung midwife lang si mama dito sa ’tin?”
Those moments broke me, as if I was more deserving of material things than love and a family. It was always “sila,” “kayo,” “lang,” “para kay ate,” “para kay kuya,” “para sa gusto mo,” “para sa inyo,” and never about “me” living without her guidance.
In 2015 on my 16th birthday, I almost lost my father during his kidney operation. I came home with no one at home to celebrate with me, because they were busy finding blood donors for my father who at the time was between life and death.
In 2016, 19 days before my 17th birthday, my sister left to work in Spain. That same year, my brother had an opportunity to manage one of the finest restaurants in the country. They had to leave me—for me.
Often, I fear the coming of my birthday, for it only gives me more emotional baggage than presents. There are times, too, when I fear I would lose the slightest memory I have of my family, because I always think of them leaving me and never coming back as the same old parents and siblings.
On my 22nd birthday, a lot had changed. But that doesn’t change the fact that the sense of solitude I have lived with for years is also the same as my mom (and now my sister, too) crying over missed opportunities far from home, because togetherness feels like killing your family’s future since you’re born with no safety nets in the Philippines. I know they feel sorry for not having spent time with me as I grew up, but I always feel guilty, too, that my family had to give up their dreams so I could have the best.
For 14 years, I have lived as if celebrations are threats and premonitions: that birthdays seem to be an end or a kind of death. There are days we commemorate death, for it is the birth to another life—another hope to look forward to. But most of the time, I celebrate to memorialize the times when my birthday felt like a burden to others. The day I was born is also a season of losses—of dreams, family, memory. And, I feel, all because of me.