Pressing Flowers

by Gurpreet Sihat

I’ve been pressing flowers. 

Almost two weeks ago, on the morning of my birthday, I received a surprise delivery from my sister: the happiest bouquet of flowers. It was a beautiful arrangement of sunshine yellow and pristine white. Daisies, snapdragons, roses, sunflowers and sweet little things I don’t know the names of. It’s been sitting by my desk; one of the first things I see when I open the curtains in the morning. 

This weekend, I picked a few flowers that had yet to start fading, tucked them between two thick tissues, and placed them beneath a mastiff’s weight of art books. A reminder of something extremely important: no matter where they are in the world, my pride will always be there for me. 

Birthdays have always been bittersweet for me. On one hand, I see them as an achievement. As someone who often contends with suicidal thoughts, it’s a reminder that I’ve made it through another year. On the other, it’s a stark reminder of birthdays passed, where I was either forgotten or pushed aside, and that fills me with dread. 

On a social level, I did pretty well through school. I didn’t make any enemies, I had nice groups of friends that I would flit between but got along with the majority of people. But I never had the kind of friends who would celebrate my birthday, even though I was part of everyone else’s celebrations. There was no birthday cheer, no cake or gifts, no singing. Usually, I didn’t even get so much as a ‘happy birthday’. At home, my extended family used my birthday as an excuse to celebrate anything but me, and I would spend the end of June watching my aunt and uncle and grandmother lavish my February-born cousin with gifts while I waited for everyone to leave. 

As I entered my twenties, this all shifted. I’d book tickets to theatre productions or plan days out; I’d go out to dinner or have cocktail afternoons in the back garden. But no matter how lovely the celebrations began, they always ended the same: one woeful person would instigate a four- or five-hour conversation about how hard-done-by they were; or would make me feel guilty about being happy while they were stuck in self-perpetuated misery; or I would be paying for dinner for two or three people and serving them like a waiter instead of being involved in the celebrations myself. Even my birthday trip to Paris, as wonderful as the rest of the holiday was, was filled with arguments and me biting my tongue on the actual day, pretending to be happy when all I wanted to do was cry.

This year, my mood was low in the days leading up to my birthday. Unsurprisingly, really, with all that’s been going on these last eight months. I had planned a quiet day – a Loki marathon, maybe A Quiet Place Part II or a Bill and Ted trilogy day, reading in the downtime – but my sisters decided otherwise. They wanted to spend the day on FaceTime with me, so I found myself trying to think of a movie they would watch, while planning to plaster a forced smile on my face. I prepared myself for the disappointment that every year inevitably bought. 

I woke early that morning, put on a brand-new yellow top that brightened my mood, and paired it with a new jacket I’d not had the chance to wear yet. I’d booked a haircut for the occasion, and took the long route to my hairdressers, enjoying the sunshine and the birds and the lack of cars on the usually busy street. I love Natasha. She’s the only person I trust with my locks, and I laughed at her jokes and smiled at her stories without the hint of falsehood while she washed and trimmed and perfected each curl before spraying me with hairspray and sending me back home feeling like one of Charlie’s Angels. 

And then back home I went, to curl up on the sofa for as long as I could, devouring my latest book pick on the Italian Renaissance (this time on Cesare Borgia and his conquests in the Romagna). That’s when the doorbell started going; over, and over, and over again. The flowers came first, followed by surprise gift after gift. They came from all over the world: Amsterdam, Romania, London, America, Canada, Germany. Each gift perfectly thought out. Each handwritten note dripping with love. 

I haven’t many friends left in the UK, and yet, for the second year in a row, my siblings and friends reminded me that I wasn’t alone here either. They reminded me that no matter where they are in the world, they are celebrating me being alive. They remember, they care, they see me.

While I ended up on FaceTime with my sisters all day, as they had planned, I did get to spend the day pretty much how I wanted. We watched The Mighty Ducks, Dolittle and The Mummy. My niblings sang Happy Birthday at every opportunity they could (knowing how much I hate being serenaded), and messages and phone calls poured in from all around the world, some from people I never thought would remember. For once, my birthday really felt like it was mine, not anyone else’s, and despite my low mood, I really enjoyed myself. 

As I started writing this post, I was thinking about how I felt like a child pressing those flowers. A thought that grew thorns and reminded me, instead, of how, five years ago, flowers would have been shoved into my arms with a ‘here’ and followed by hours of being made to feel little, guilty and ashamed. How everything nice was tainted by the fact that the person who shoved the flowers in my hand in the first place didn’t actually care… they were just checking off a box on an invisible list. But these flowers aren’t a ‘because I have to’ bouquet, they’re a ‘because I want to’ bouquet. It’s the very reason I chose to press them in the first place. Subconsciously, I recognised that the second they arrived.

Change has always frightened me. I’ve always assumed that all change will be bad. Perhaps it’s past experience that has made me think such things, or maybe it’s anxiety, or even just being Cancerian (we don’t do well with change, do we fellow Cancerians?). And while there have been some hard feelings and bad outcomes as I’ve made changes in who I want to give my energy to and how I want to spend my time these past few years, I’m really started to see the positive changes in life. The proof subtly shows itself every day, but, on days like my 29th birthday this year, it appears bathed in sunshine. 

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