I always notice when the kids around me turn 10. I notice how different my life was than theirs and I remember what it felt like for me. Too often I wonder what it could have been like, what it could have felt like if God had rescued me, if He would have protected me more viscerally. No birthday is more pungent than my 10th.
It was my first sunrise, the first time I watched it that is. At this point in my life, my 10th birthday, I had seen many dawns (you know that point where the darkness breaks into the light). But I had never seen the sun actually rise.
It wasn’t glamorous. But it was beautiful, meaningful. Meaning is one of the most beautiful things to me. It leaves purpose, reminders, a marker as a way of processing and reframing difficulty with joy. That sun rise has stayed imprinted to my memory my entire life. I have not seen another since that day, that really difficult day.
I don’t recall my birthdays being special or well celebrated, but my mother tried. If anything, she tried hard with what she had and I am grateful to her for that. Each birthday she’d take me to get a cappuccino from the local gas station. She loved coffee, and of course, I admired her.
As a kid, it felt special to drink this sugary caffeinated beverage. IT. WAS. THE. BEST. And my mom would sit and drink it with me, just the two of us, on my birthday. Perhaps it was only 10 minutes, but for a shy, quiet, chronically sick child who felt like the center of every financial and marital problem, 10 minutes of time focused on me was a luxury. And I looked forward to it. It was the best gift.
It had been a hard night that eve of my 10th birthday. Our house became unsafe again. My mother gathered myself and one of my younger sisters into the car frantically. It was the dead of winter in New England, a snow storm. We didn’t have shoes on, not even pants. And our car had been the undesired benefactor of my mother’s husband’s anger: another smashed windshield and caved in roof.
But she drove us in that car anyways, frantic to get us somewhere safe. We slept on the side of the road. My mom, too afraid to draw attention to where we were, needed to keep the car off, and therefore the heat off. My little sister, 6 yrs old at the time whimpered in pain from the cold. We interlocked arms and I held her, trying to keep one another warm. I pulled her in under my big night shirt and we stayed like that, both unable to sleep in our pant-less, shoeless, painfully cold skins.
And as the light broke into the darkness that morning, I watched the sun rise from our smashed in car roof above my head, the bright pink and purple bursting through a light snow fall. I watched the dawn of my 10th birthday. And I made a mental note to never forget it. To never forget what it felt like. The bitterness and the beauty. The mixed.
As I sat up, I breathed in the terribly cold air as it stung my lungs, felt the snow that had slowly accumulated around us, the tender pain of freezing limbs, and I thought, “this is God’s gift to me. This is so beautiful.”
You see, I didn’t grow up being taught much about God or Jesus. Mostly they were only cuss words. But I hoped that there was a God and that He would save me, and help me, and cry for me.
And when my mother woke and brought us somewhere safe and warm, I could see it in her eyes that she forgot it was my birthday or perhaps it was too painful for her to acknowledge. There was a coldness in her, too, as if the winter night had seeped through her soul.
There were no cappuccinos that day, no gifts, no cake. No birthday.
My 10th year of life was one of the most challenging I can recall. But all these years I’ve held onto that sunrise, the only one I’ve ever seen, as one of the most beautiful pictures in my head. I felt as if it was God’s gift to me, a reminder to hold tight, He was coming. He would rescue me. The people around me hardly knew I existed, but God did.
As my ten year old self sat watching this sunrise, I had never been so excited for light in my life, so excited to see another day. warmth. hope. All of it. And I decided then that I refused to inflict the same pain I received on others. I wanted to be like the sunrise, not the cold, bitter, winter night.
My tenth birthday was a day I won’t forget. And I hope that someday I can watch the sunrise again and experience that hope and beauty once more, with someone in solidarity to share the meaningfulness of it with me.
We don’t always get the things we want and need in this life. We make it. We survive. We learn to thrive and get by at times. But then there are moments amidst the pain, shock, confusion, betrayal, whatever at may be, that God sends us reminders that He’s coming, that there’s hope, and that joy really will come in the morning. Sometimes we just have to hold tight and wait through the winter for it. Unfairly, unjustly so. Because life is pretty mixed. It’s both bitter and beautiful, empty and full, painful and passion filled. And I wanted to hold the meaning, this gift of imperfect beauty, in my mind forever.