Ten Candles

When I was ten years old, there was nothing I wanted more than a birthday cake. I would draw on a piece of paper the same birthday cake I envisioned over and over again. The cake was always drawn in an uneven circle, with chocolate flavors and blue frosting. Sugar flowers decorated the sides and a “Happy Birthday Jade” was delicately written with yellow syrup. Ten white candles were stuck at the center and a stick figure of me with my family always appeared in the background. All year round it was all I could think. It was everything I dreamt of.

A brief story why I wanted a birthday cake, it was because I never had one but my younger siblings always had a cake for their birthdays. When I was five, my sister Micah celebrated her first birthday, her cake was yellow with cherries and vanilla flavoring. When I was seven, my brother Joshua had a blue cake with little toy figurines, chocolate coins and marshmallows. Each year, my father would come home with a box of cake for their birthdays. With a graceful hand, my mother would take the cake out of the box, place it on the table and light the candles. Each year, for my birthday, I was lucky if I got scrambled eggs and a glass of chocolate.

At first, none of these bothered me. For all I knew, birthday cakes were privileges given only to the younger ones. But when I was invited to my cousin’s birthday party, I was surprised. No, not surprised, rather I was shocked and devastated. At the table, a cake stood in all its glory. I never felt so confused before. With furrowed brows and a scowl I asked my cousin why she had a birthday cake.

She laughed, “Why can’t I?”

“But you’re the oldest! You aren’t supposed to have a birthday cake.” I protested with childish persistence.

She pinched my cheeks and laughed at my silliness. “Where in the world did you get that? Anyone can have a birthday cake, whether you’re the eldest or not.”

That night when I came home, my mother asked, “How was the party?”

I answered, “It was the worst.”

I slumped into my bed, pondering my cousin’s answer. It was then that I first pulled a pencil and paper from the table and drew the cake I always wanted for my birthday. That night, it planted a seed of foolish hope, jealousy and sadness that would tear me apart from my family, eight years later.

That year, when December 8th rolled in, I sat in front of my table and counted the number of cakes I’d drawn and pasted on the wall. 50 pictures in all, one for each day since I started drawing one. That night, I drew the 51st cake and laughed at the silliness of it when I realized that all 51 cakes looked the same.

December 9. I woke up and stared at the ceiling. I didn’t want to get up. I was excited and afraid. Surely, my parents would have noticed by now the growing number of cakes I have on the wall. I closed my eyes and tried to listen to the hushed clattering of plates in the dining room, imagining the cake that would surprise me. Five minutes later, my mother bellowed for me to get up. There was no cake, not even a piece of egg or a glass of chocolate.

When I got home, I stood in front of our house. Crossing my fingers, I hoped that a surprise birthday party would be waiting for me. But the moment I opened the door, a rush of disappointment met me. There was no cake, no surprise party. My father wasn’t even home for dinner. Mother said he was working late.

When I laid in bed that night, tears coursed down my cheeks, leaving stain on my soft pillow. I realized that no one even greeted me, not even my mom. Nobody remembered my birthday. I slept with a heavy heart.

The next day, I woke up with the realization that something inside me had changed. I touched my chest and felt that my beating heart was broken. Years later, as I recounted the story to my friends in college, they laughed and taunted me. Teasing that surely, a birthday cake couldn’t possibly break my heart. They said I was ridiculous, I said they were fools. Boyfriends and bad dates weren’t the only ones who could break your heart. Your parents can, your family can a cake can. Trust me, I know. Each year, all three broke me heart.

With a heavy heart, I took down all the 51 drawings and kept it in an unwanted shoebox and kicked it under the bed. When my mother came in to clean the room that night, she glanced at the wall and asked, “What did you do with drawings?”

I stared at my notebook, pretending to work on my homework. “I threw them.”

She placed a hand on my shoulder, peering at my notebook. “Why?”

“They were ugly drawings.” I shut the notebook and said, “It’s late, I’m going to sleep.”

She nodded and watched me tuck myself in bed. She switched off the lights and for a moment stood by the door. I wasn’t sure if I heard say “Belated happy birthday,” I pulled the covers over my head, convincing myself it was all a dream.

I stopped drawing cakes that year. It wasn’t until I was twelve years old that I started drawing again.  My mother had this idea that I should start a journal, writing down my thoughts and all. She said that it would help me cope through adolescence.

But I didn’t write my feelings on the journal. All I did was fill the pages with cakes every night. And each year, as I started another journal, I would open the notebook to the first page and write a wish list. I always wrote same thing at number one.

  1. A birthday cake
  2. Linda Sue Park’s book
  3. Tulips
  4. A yellow dress
  5. Dancing shoes

Every night, for 6 years instead or writing about crushes and girlish ranting, I drew cakes. 365 cakes, sometimes it was 366. At the end of the year, I would silently look at the last page, tracing the drawing and promising myself that I would never draw again. But the next day, I would start again.

I carried this foolish tradition with me through highschool and college. With a broken heart and wavering hope, I would silently plead and pray that fairies of eve God would grant my wishes. Each year, I would be disappointed.

It wasn’t until my eighteenth birthday that I got my first cake. It didn’t look like any of my dreams. It was small, no bigger than a cupcake with white frosting and single candle stuck at the center. But my bestfriend Gale looks so happy when she gave it to me at dinner and even sung the birthday song. When I blew the candle, she snapped a photo and winked as she asked me if I wished for a boyfriend.

In my room, I placed the cake on the table and stared at it for hours. When midnight passed, I took a fork and ate the cake, tears spilling from my eyes. Instead of happiness at receiving my first cake, I felt grief. Something inside me died. That something was hope. As I ate the cake, I came to the realization that my parents would never give me one.

That day, I stopped drawing cakes on my journal. I took out the shoebox and kept it along with the other journals. I closed the box and taped the lid shut. I pushed it at the back of my closet. I promised that I would never draw a cake  again. This time, I kept that promise. That same year, I walked away from my family, always keeping my distance, avoiding my siblings’ birthdays and lived alone.

After I graduated from college, I decided to leave the country and went to Europe. There, I fulfilled my dreams of becoming a designer and an artist. Two years later, I moved to Korea. That was when I opened the shoebox and looked at the drawings.

I stared with sad amazement at the drawings, my fingers tracing each cake, softly flipping the pages of each notebook. For a while, I sat motionless until I decided it was time to say goodbye to the drawings. I wasn’t going to burn them, nor throw them away. The drawings were the shattered pieces of my heart, shards of broken dreams that walked with me everyday. I couldn’t throw them away, but I decided it was time to move on. I would say goodbye in the best way that I can.

I ripped each drawing from the notebooks and laid it on the floor. For months, I carefully cut and pasted the drawings together, gradually forming a collaged photo of myself when I was ten years old. On my 24th birthday, I unveiled the photo at my exhibit. It was the centerpiece of my series.

As I was sticking a red ribbon on the artworks that I had sold, a man walked up to me and smiled, “How much would you sell that one for?”

I looked at the portrait he was pointing at and said, “That’s not for sale.”

Raising an eyebrow, he crossed his arms and said, “I’ll pay any amount.”

“Sorry but I can’t sell it. You can choose another one.”

“Everything’s sold except for that one.”

“I’ll make something else.”

He dropped his hands to his side, staring at me for a minute or two. He put his hands on his pockets, “Why won’t you sell it?”

I smiled, “Because it’s the story of my life.”

That night, the collaged portrait was the only thing I didn’t sell. Instead, I wrapped it up and sent it to my parents who were now living in Canada. I told them the exhibit was a success. They sent me a gift. It was necklace, I never wore it.

When I said goodbye to those drawings, I opened another door in my life. I may not have sold the portrait to that man, but I did tell him my story. Hours later, before I went home, he offered his hand, “You can call me Lay,” and waved goodbye. A week later, I saw him again and we ended up dating.

For my 25th birthday, Lay surprised me with a bouquet of tulips. I smiled and kissed him under the stars. Leaning on his shoulders, I watched his hands play the guitar and listened to him sing. I said to myself, “This is the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

For the first time I was right.

When Lay drove me home, he smiled and said, “I still have one birthday surprise for you.”

I laughed and asked, “Is it a ring?”

He reached for my hand, “No. But do you want one?”

I giggled and felt my cheeks blush, “Yeah, but not today. Maybe next year.”

When I opened the door to my house, Lay covered my eyes with his hands. Between protests and laughter, he led me inside the house.

Removing his hands from my eyes, I looked inside the dark room. That was when I saw it.

A candle softly illuminated light in the dark room. I could hear soft voices singing, I could see shadows forming. I closed my eyes for a second, wondering if this was all a dream. When I opened them, I saw my parents holding a cake. It looked like the one I had always drawn.

I stared at my parents, the tears spilling from my eyes. A wave of happiness rushed over me, filling every space of my soul. Their smiles seemed to pick the broken pieces of my heart and put it together. I looked at the cake and counted the candles, there were ten.

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