(Note: I share a birthday--Aug. 31--with my fictional character in this story. Thank goodness I don't have the same issues that she has with birthday celebrations, but I hope this story reminds me that God made me and loves me always. I hope it does the same for you.)
August was the cruelest of months.
Throughout the years, the month had become a source of constant and expected disappointment for Charlotte despite the fact that it should have given her some of the happiest moments on the calendar.
Charlotte’s birthday fell on the final day of the month, and August became a ticking time bomb that counted down thirty one days she’d rather just forget. By the time her birthday arrived she felt a sense of relief that the month had almost come to its end.
Today marked the beginning of the dreaded month once again, as Charlotte looked ahead toward her 20th birthday. Wiping the sleep from her eyes and stretching exaggeratedly to push herself to wake up, she glanced at the cell phone by her bedside table. The display verified it to her: “8:05 a.m. August 1.”
“Wonder if I could just sleep in for the next four weeks?” she said out loud, but really only to herself.
A sense of humor had become necessary, but it couldn’t mask the resentment that greeted the day every year.
Forcing herself to get out of bed and shower before getting ready for her job at the downtown Birmingham coffee shop, Charlotte ticked through the litany of August cruelties from her memory.
They’d started out innocently enough.
At 4, she’d come down with chicken pox.
At 7, no one had come to her birthday party.
At 9, her favorite dog had run away.
At 10, her Dad had lost his job and told the family they’d be moving to a new city away from her friends.
Shaking her head as if to stop the next memories from swarming back, Charlotte recalled the August moments that truly hurt.
The ones that changed her.
She’d never forget the memory of that week before her 13th birthday, as she excitedly anticipated the plans her parents had made to celebrate the arrival of their first teenager in the household. They’d acted sneaky and suspicious, hinting that she might get to finally get her ears pierced. And maybe, just maybe, a trip to her favorite theme park was in order.
Until her mother knocked on the door the night before her birthday. With tears in her eyes, she’d told Charlotte that her father had left.
He’d left a note for her mother (something that tried to explain his loss of love and need for something more), but left nothing for Charlotte.
The next day felt bereft and empty; her mother baked a cake and tried to put on a cheerful face as she sang to her daughter, but the moments rang hollow.
The pain of that recollection morphed into the memory of the August just three years ago, as Charlotte’s senior year of high school approached.
She’d greeted that August with an unlikely eagerness; the weeks and month ahead held promise; she’d been happier than she’d been in a long time; she could see stretched before her the joyful pictures of upcoming dances, football games, parties, and proms.
But then her boyfriend of two years--the boyfriend she’d dreamed of a true future with--told her they were going in different directions. That he couldn’t lie to himself any more. That he wanted to give her freedom, so that she could find real happiness.
Josh held her hand as he broke the news in mid-August, the day before school started.
That had been the final blow.
She’d tried to muster up a small flicker of enthusiasm in the years after her father left (and Josh had almost convinced her that birthdays were worth celebrating, as he brought her cupcakes and party hats the two years they’d been together), but she now made no such effort.
Charlotte pulled her wavy brown hair into a ponytail and grabbed her backpack as she walked out of her bedroom. She’d moved into her own apartment after enrolling in community college last year, but hadn’t yet gotten used to the tinyness of her surroundings. One bedroom, one bathroom, and a kitchen-living room combination.
Still, she’d attempted to make it as homey as possible and now smiled at the flowers on the kitchen counter that doubled as her eating area.
She noticed then a card leaning against the vase of flowers on the counter.
Nothing was written on the outside and she couldn’t imagine any reason why it would be there. Charlotte asked herself if she perhaps had purchased it and forgotten it, but couldn’t recall. She rarely bought cards, in fact; greetings, congratulations, and celebrations were acknowledged mostly on social media.
She hesitantly opened the envelope, greeted by a card festooned with balloons, streamers, and popping champagne bottles. It declared, “Happy Birthday!” in big, bold, colorful letters.
Charlotte glanced around her, knowing she was alone in her apartment but looking for some sort of explanation.
She opened the card.
In ballpoint cursive, it read: “Happy birthday month! I’m so glad you were born.”
She laughed uneasily, looking around the room again. She didn’t recognize the handwriting and no signature had been added.
Surely Mom or one of her friends would have signed their names, she reasoned to herself.
“Sweet, I guess,” she said to herself, “but weird.”
She imagined she’d find the answer to the mystery of the card once she talked to her mother and her friends; Mom kept trying to reignite a love in Charlotte for birthdays, and Lara or Sadie could have snuck the card in when they’d visited the night before to eat pizza and watch a movie.
Charlotte soon learned, though, that no one in her circle would admit to placing the card in her apartment. And in the following days the mystery grew, with greetings left in a variety of manners for Charlotte--each time, with no signature and no revelation of the gifters’ identity.
A note slipped under the door: “You are special.”
A card tucked under her windshield wipers: “This month will be better.”
An envelope stuck into her backpack: “I know the plans for you, and they are good.”
A post-it note on her refrigerator: “You’re like no one else. Unique and loved.”
Charlotte recoiled at the first few messages, confused at how they made it into her private spaces. She peeked over her shoulder; jumped at any unfamiliar noise. She questioned friends, co-workers, family members; she began looking surreptitiously at acquaintances, even strangers.
A funny thing happened, however, after the seventh day of the note arrivals (“You deserve all the best,” left in her mailbox): Charlotte began to look forward to the missives.
After the twelfth day (“Don’t hold onto the past,” found in the arms of her favorite stuffed bear), she began to believe what the messages said.
Smiles and conversations came easier; a quiet confidence began to reawaken; the weight from past Augusts seemed to lift a bit.
After the fifteenth day (“You are wonderfully made,” lying on her doorstep), she stopped questioning where they came from. She began to wonder, in fact, if the words had come from something not quite "mortal."
After the twentieth day, she didn’t notice that the messages had stopped.
She didn’t need the words from a stranger because she’d begun to hear the messages on her own, inside her spirit.
A few days before her birthday, Charlotte surprised everyone who knew her when she agreed to a birthday gathering; Lara, Sadie, two other friends from church, her mother, even a fellow barista from the coffee shop (a boy she’d casually talked with, but now looked at with fresh eyes)--they all agreed to gather at her apartment for dinner. Charlotte smiled at the thought of them all in her home, laughing and eating her favorite chocolate cake.
On the morning of the 31st, Charlotte woke to the sound of her phone’s alarm. Her first instinct--born of the last two decades--was to cover her head with her pillow and burrow under the covers for the rest of the day. “My birthday,” she sighed. “Again.”
She sat up, struck by the bright light streaming through her window. The day dawned fresh and new. The possibilities stretched ahead of her.
“My birthday,” she said again, this time smiling.
She walked out of her bedroom, her eyes alighting on the vase on the kitchen counter filled with flowers. These had come from the farmer’s market around the corner from her coffee shop.
Leaning against the vase was an envelope, in the same place an envelope had appeared back on August 1st.
Charlotte approached the envelope with a sense of wonder. No fear, no trepidation, no confusion; just a hard-to-explain understanding and eagerness.
She opened the envelope and then the card. Inside were the words:
“I made you.
I love you.
You’re not tied to your past, and you can look forward to the future with hope.
Life can be tough, but it’s to be celebrated.
YOU are meant to be celebrated.
Trust me, because I’ve got you.
I’ve always got you.”
She held the card to her chest, closing her eyes in something a prayer, then placed it in the kitchen drawer where she’d collected the other slips of paper, post-it-notes, envelopes, and cards from the past month.
She smiled and thought of the day ahead of her.
The last day of August.
A day to celebrate.
Cheryl Wray is the coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference. While she's a prolific freelance writer with thousands of published articles in newspapers and magazines, she dreams of being a novelist. Her birthday is at the end of August, and looks forward to celebrating it with friends, family, and cake.