It was on my birthday this year, on Dec. 3, that I realized something: I don't care much about gifts anymore. I was studying abroad in London, making it harder than usual for my family to give me anything physical. My friends in London were running out of the money they'd saved for the trip, just like I was, so it wasn't a surprise when I didn't receive many birthday gifts.
What was surprising was how little I minded. I went out for dinner with friends and, while having a drink, started wondering when that happened.
There didn't seem to be any specific moment. I once was obsessed with receiving gifts, and suddenly was not.
I remember once being able to rattle off my desired presents before a shopping mall Santa could finish asking what I wanted for Christmas.
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I remember once, when I was around 10, waiting for my family to bring me my birthday gifts. It's a tradition in my family to wake up the birthday person on their day by singing "Happy Birthday" and giving them their gifts in bed.
That year, I'd woken up around 5 and started crying when my family didn't come into my room. I was certain they'd forgotten about me. Then I remembered that the sun still hadn't come up, and figured that could possibly factor into their inconsiderate treatment of the birthday princess. (Spoiler: they didn't forget. They just woke up a couple hours later.)
These days, it takes a little while to think of specific items I want. Don't get me wrong, I still love presents, and free things are my favorite possessions. But it's not all-consuming anymore. I guess that happens when you grow up.
In an odd way, that thought made me feel sad. Had I been growing up all this time and not noticed? It never fails to catch me by surprise.
But all the evidence has been right in front of me. I can cook decent, non-pizza meals for myself now. I can make a call without getting anxious beforehand. And as of this month, I can get an alcoholic drink in the U.S. That’s pretty nice.
I looked at the cocktail in my hand. It was my 21st birthday and I'd bought a drink for a friend who couldn't afford it. Not exactly birthday tradition to buy your own alcohol and someone else’s, but again, I was surprised at the level at which I did not mind.
Just a couple weeks after that, I was standing outside my university at 5 a.m. in the fog with a friend I’d made in London, each of us waiting for our respective taxis to take us to our respective airports as we were both headed home. When her taxi rolled up, we both began to cry. I didn’t know when I would see her again. We promised she would visit me in the U.S. someday, but we didn’t know when.
And I realized this is what now fills the part of my heart that used to be crowded with gift boxes. It’s the reason the song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” makes me more emotional than when I was younger, when it seemed pretty cheesy.
Getting older, you learn to accept that sometimes you have to be far from the people you love. Sometimes they move away, or you move away, or you just drift apart. There’s no guarantee they will always be next door, like when you were a kid.
At the same time I said goodbye to my friend in the fog, I knew I was going back to family and friends in Tacoma who loved me. I realized how lucky it is to be surrounded by love. It hurts to leave people, but it’s nice to have people in my life that hurt me just by being absent.
So in the end, that’s one of the things you end up wanting most in life: having the people you love right in front of you. No bows, wrapping paper or gift receipts required.
Manola Secaira of Tacoma is a journalism and English major studying at Seattle Pacific University. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.