On Julian’s eleventh birthday, the day as he knew it would be changed forever. Perhaps that was a bit melodramatic, for if you were to step inside his mind and rummage through his birthday memories overall, it’s doubtful you’d be able to spot any major differences. After all, birthdays (a special occasion by nature) had always felt particularly special to Julian. They represented an oasis, a point of consistency in an ever-changing life. As Julian grew more and more, making the transition from baby to child, from child to preteen, he took away one lesson above all the others he learned from his parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Family and friends would come and go, styles and trends would change, people got sick and sometimes got better (or sometimes not)—but birthdays were to be held in the highest regard.
Each year, he could look forward to his Great-Grandma’s famous fudge cake with heavenly buttercream frosting, splash around with his friends in the pond near his home (it was usually warm enough-living in California helped), and then hop in the family pickup truck, where his dad would take him and his buddies to whatever their favorite restaurant was that year. He would laugh until his ribs ached, pig out on junk foods until his mother swatted them out of his hands, and for those 24 hours, any and all burdens of his seemed to waft away like the smoke of his freshly blown out birthday candles. In short, if you told Julian that one day he would never look at his birthday the same way, he would have laughed just as hard as he did on that special day once a year. But heaven knows he wasn’t laughing on the day of the incident—and neither was anyone else, for that matter.
It began as a typical birthday in the Erickson household. Julian’s mom, dad, and Grandma Natalie were all waiting for him when came downstairs that Tuesday morning. After a flurry of hugs and kisses, and the traditional pancake buffet, they briefly went over plans for his party that afternoon. Now in double digits, Julian was getting a bit old for theme parties. But after hearing about the tradition of golden birthdays from his Grandma-as this was both the eleventh of the month and his eleventh birthday-he thought it sounded cool, and asked his parents if they could incorporate it somehow. Hence the golden balloons, streamers, and party favors strewn across the coffee table, impatiently waiting for 4 o’clock to arrive already so they could be admired by the birthday boy and his guests. It was a desire that, unfortunately, would go unfulfilled.
Julian remained in his usual birthday haze until the school bus screeched to an abrupt stop, and his friend Will nudged him, alerting him to a conference between their bus driver and the vice-principal. They spoke in quiet, hurried tones. Vice Principal McCarthy looked grim (were those tears, he wondered?) and Ben the driver wore an expression of mounting horror and shock. Finally, Mrs. McCarthy composed herself as best she could, and spoke to the children. Her usual commanding tone wavered slightly. “Boys and girls, something very…unexpected has happened. Today will not be an ordinary day of school. First, I need everyone to follow me to the auditorium quietly. Principal Greene is already there with some…friends of his. He will try to explain what’s happened in more detail when we get there. Then, all classes will be canceled for the rest of the day.”
Julian let out a loud whoop. He couldn’t help it-his eleventh birthday and no school for the rest of the day? For a kid his age, that was the equivalent of heaven on earth. A couple of kids giggled when he did-a few even threw in their own cheers-but they were almost immediately silenced by a look from their Vice Principal so sharp it was almost frightening.
“Trust me, Mr. Erikson,” she intoned, “when I say that what’s happened is no laughing matter.”
Boy, was she right.
For the next half hour or so, Julian sat in stunned silence with the rest of the school as their principal spoke gravely of the dire situation one region over. Buildings destroyed with hundreds inside; thousands others dead; the country as a whole left feeling completely unsteady.
The “friends” Vice Principal McCarthy had mentioned to her students were actually a team of grief counselors. They would be around for the next week or two, Principal Greene said, to help any students who were struggling with the tragedy. Of his friends, Julian was the only one who went.
He hadn’t thought he would at first. But he changed his mind after one of the most awkward afternoons of his life. His family and friends tried to go on with business as usual, but every few minutes it seemed there was another sobering update that continued to put a damper on the party’s energy. By the time cake and presents rolled around, the only smiles were forced ones and any laughter was weak at best. Everyone shuffled out shortly after the last present was opened.
“Is this how birthdays are going to be from now on?” Julian asked in a small voice, turning to his family gathered behind him. They all smiled sadly and came together in a group hug.
“No, dear,” his grandmother whispered. “I know today wasn’t quite what you were expecting. But trust me, I’ve lived in this world a good deal longer than you. Seen my fair share of tragedies as well.”
His parents nodded. “That’s right,” his dad agreed. “This country went through a great deal before you came around, kiddo. But one thing you’ll see as you grow older—some way, some how, we always get by.”
That helped Julian some, but he still couldn’t shake the strange feelings going on within him. So that’s how he found himself in the guidance counselor’s office the next morning, trying to sort everything out with a lady named Melissa who was not quite as old as his grandma, but not quite as young as his mother. She listened patiently as he talked about how nothing felt the same anymore—especially with his birthday.
“Yeah,” he said, eyes downcast. “It was yesterday, and…”
“Ahhh…I see.” He frowned at being cut off, but he let her go on. “You don’t feel right celebrating yourself when so many other people are in pain. It feels a little selfish, doesn’t it?”
Julian hadn’t thought about it like that before. But now that she’d said it, he remembered his party yesterday. Anytime he and his friends really started to have fun, and things would start to feel normal again, something would come up about the towers and the people who died and it all fizzled out. He’d think about how there would be no more birthdays for those who had died. And he was sure their families wouldn’t be able to celebrate their birthdays the same way anymore either.
“Why does everything have to change?” he blurted. “Birthdays used to be fun. I never had to worry about them before—I could just relax and be with my friends. Now I’m afraid I’ll just think about everyone that died, and what if something else happens on that day that changes things, and–”
He stopped and took a deep breath. “Sorry,” he whispered. “I just—don’t like feeling bad about having a good time.”
Melissa just smiled. “Of course not. Nobody wants you to feel bad, Julian. And there’s really no need for you to feel guilty. You’re not the one at fault for this. Trust me when I say that nobody will hold it against you if you want to have fun on your birthday.”
“Yeah? What about the people who lost their families?”
“I can’t speak for them, but I imagine they’re going through something very similar to you. They’re happy they survived, but still sad that they lost someone they cared about. It’s a strange feeling, but it will get better. You and they—all of us, really—just need time.”
Julian settled back in his chair. So he wasn’t alone in this feeling. That was good, he supposed, but all she could tell him was “take your time”? How much time was she talking about? Would he still feel this way by his next birthday? He hoped not—that was a long time to go through, especially when his circumstances were so unique. Sure, he had something in common with the mourners, but he didn’t know anyone who shared a birthday with a national tragedy. Maybe the two struggles weren’t as different as he thought. He supposed there was only one way to find out.
“Could I write to them?” he asked, surprising Melissa, who’d been making notes in his silence.
“The people who lost their friends and family. Is there any way I can write to them and say I’m sorry for what happened…and maybe see if they have some advice for me?”
Melissa beamed. “I think that’s a wonderful idea. I don’t know of any programs right now, but I’ll see what I can find for you. Is there anything else?”
He thought for a moment. “No. But please do let me know what you find, okay?”
“I will…oh, and Julian?”
She gave him a little grin. “Happy late birthday.”
He paused, surprised, but soon recovered and smiled back. “Thanks. I think I’m feeling more grown-up already.”