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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Happy Birthday — now what can I get you?

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Spousal birthday presents were a quandary when we first married. An impending birthday meant brainstorming for possible gifts, begging each other for clues as to what we truly wanted and eventually, purchasing an expensive something that was seldom used –but at least made us feel like we’d satisfied our sense of marital duty.

As the years passed, finding a gift became increasingly complicated as our needs diminished. When we wanted something any other month of the year, there was no point in waiting for a birthday. In our ego-centric, me-first culture, it wasn’t hard to justify buying the item right away ourselves – which is precisely what we did.

Eventually we sat down for a heart-to-heart. “There’s nothing either of us needs,” I declared. “So what’s the point in spending money on something superfluous?”

He agreed, so we made a birthday pact. We’d exchange thoughtfully written birthday cards and share a meal out when possible, on our birthdays. Aside from a homemade cake, there would be no fuss or fanfare. Who needed it?

I did, I realized as my 40th approached. Sixteen years into marriage I missed the adventures we used to share, the exotic locations we once travelled to and the fun that once pervaded our young lives. These days, it seemed, it was all about deadlines, crisis management and weekends filled with keeping the kids busy. By the time we shelved our work and settled the kids, there was neither time nor energy left over for fun.

“I know what I want for my birthday next year,” I said slowly, six months before its arrival. It had been a decade or more since I’d asked for a birthday present, so I knew I’d have his attention right away. “Take some time off work and let’s travel somewhere together and have an adventure.”

I had a pocketful of persuasion tactics up my sleeve, but it turned out I didn’t need them. Within hours of my request we’d booked tickets for a 10-day trip to Thailand. Over the months that followed we pulled out our air-miles and credit-card points, using them to upgrade to business class and book expensive hotels we’d usually avoid. We scheduled an itinerary filled with exotic rainforests, bustling markets and blissful days on the beach. It might be another decade before we were able to indulge in a trip like this again, we figured. So we pulled out all the stops.

Guilt? There was plenty of it. “How can you leave the children when they need you?” my father asked bluntly.

The kids were dismayed, initially. “You’re not taking us?” they asked incredulously. “Why?” As the weeks to departure date slipped closer, we explained that mom and dad needed and deserved some time together. It sounded selfish, even to us. But the temptation of braving the tropics just the two of us was irresistable. No fights to break up. No whining to contend with. Just each other’s company and a new country to explore together.

It was the birthday present of a lifetime, and as I type this column I am surrounded by one of the world’s oldest rainforests, the whooping sounds of gibbons and the chatter of giant hornbills filling my ears. In a matter of days I will be back at my desk fielding a barrage of emails and frantically catching up on 10 days of absenteeism. But I’ll do so with the dreamy memories of my spouse by my side in a foreign land – for me, the ultimate gift.

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