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It was my grandmother’s birthday yesterday. I know this because my mother sent a message telling me that it was my grandmother’s birthday. Two hours later, she sent another, more pointed message telling me to wish my grandmother a happy birthday, please. I expect to receive a similar message in April on my father’s birthday, whenever that is.
The notification system on my phone is filled with reminders: deadlines, appointments, and responsibilities. I having an elaborate series of staggered alerts to message my mother, my father, my siblings, my friends. At this moment, four are overdue, but I will sit down this afternoon and compose a few messages. I won’t ask how they are. I won’t talk about how I’ve been. I’ll report to them with interesting news or a clever joke I’ve heard and see what they make of it.
From time to time, my friends and family will tell me their news unprompted, and I will struggle to remember what they’ve already told me. The people who populate their worlds, who I know only from their stories, are dim and irreal to me, like characters in a play I have never seen. There are coworkers I half remember, marriages I have never heard of, and second cousins whose names I struggle to recall. They sometimes ask me about the lives of my other friends, and I find myself unable to answer. I don’t know who they are dating. I don’t know what their parents do. I don’t know if they have work lined up for the summer.
As a teenager, I had a reputation for being cold and indifferent. Even now, I’m considered an unemotional, unsentimental sort. Close friends call me ‘Spock’ as a compliment for my logical, impersonal approach to offering advice. (At least, I think it’s a compliment.)
They’re not wrong. I am unsentimental. I don’t feel a connection to birthdays. I don’t care about anniversaries. I even dislike most holidays — they are disruptive and arbitrary, to my mind. I don’t care for most ritual displays of affection or closeness. I don’t care for cards and presents and performances of gratitude. I don’t like them, and I struggle to understand why other people do.
This not to say that I do not care for the people who give me these things, who wish me a happy birthday and expect that I will do so in return. It is rather that the symbolism of talking to someone on a particular day based on the approximate position of the Earth in relation to the Sun at the time they were born and whatever feelings I have for them are rather divorced in my mind. I know these things are very important to people in my life, so I try to respect and honour them, but I have never had an intuitive understanding of why they care so much about one day out of 365.
I have struggled for most of my life to translate what I feel into a language that others can understand. To show that I care, even when the little rituals intended to signal that affection confuse and bewilder me. With closer friends, I have carved my own ways of demonstrating my regard for them. I have fashioned a thousand “I love yous” out of studying their interests, learning their preferences, remembering all of their little habits and jokes, and listening to their thoughts and troubles without judgement. For all that I struggle to be thoughtful in the way that it is usually conceived, I have tried to be a person with whom others can be their true selves, with whom they can feel understood. I hope that my friends and family know that.
I like to think of cultural ideas of how to be a good friend as a sort of hypothetical model that you can customize to suit your needs. It is my view that relationships are like friendly contracts, where you can go with the standard form or you can negotiate and renegotiate something that better suits the needs and abilities of both parties. If the normal way of showing that you love someone doesn’t work for you, or if the way you express your feelings in a relationship doesn’t match with what books and movies tell you — well, it doesn’t need to. We are allowed to rethink and reshape the models of being society gave us. We are allowed to rewrite the rules of what it means to be a person who cares.