I have a list of 6 blog posts I want/need to write, but the one that actually has a self-imposed deadline is my birthday post; I’m turning 30 next week, on November 2! Last year, when I had my colon taken out in December, I did the math for the other two surgeries that would be required. I knew there was a relatively good chance of being in the hospital when my birthday rolled around, especially as I nailed down short-term jobs and I realized that with the book coming out in my favorite month (October) and my business getting really busy towards the holidays (mid-November-January), I was even more sure that a birthday hospitalization was highly likely. Except for the part where I’ll be in pain, dazed, and unable to eat anything for many days (no cake! no ice cream! no champagne!), I’ll still get to be surrounded by friends and family, surrounded by balloons, wearing a party hat, looking out the window, thinking about the years that came before, and hopefully the years that are ahead of me.
And when I think about it, this could be the best cause for celebration ever, a chance to regain health and the ability to live the life (or lives, as I attempt to be multiple people) I want. I will get rid of this ostomy bag after 11 months, 11 months of emptying a bag of poop that hangs at my side, too many times a day for me to want to count. I will not be looking at my small intestine poking out of my skin and into this bag. I will go the bathroom the “normal” way! It’s a pretty exciting time. To make up for not spending my favorite holiday (Halloween) or my birthday doing what I’d prefer to do (ya know, not getting my guts rearranged), I packed it in during October, my favorite month. At some point, I will write all about that here. For now, I want to share with you an essay I wrote for a book that my friend Nancy put together, entitled, How Much Remains. It’s a compilation of essays about turning 30, all by women who share 1981 as their birth year. (You can buy it if you click on that link!) It is very related to what I mentioned above, and sums up way more articulately than I’m doing right now, how I feel about this milestone birthday.
“When is this tree’s birthday?” he asked, gently patting its rough base.
An image of trees celebrating with helium balloons and sheet cakes and silly games flashes across my mind, as I add this question to the always-growing list of reasons I am profoundly captivated by children.
I know what he is asking, that he is being perfectly literal, but I answer with a perfunctory adult response anyway: “Um…do you mean, how old is this tree?”
“No, I mean, when is his birthday?” he reiterates, a little agitated, as if I am misunderstanding entirely.
I answer again, with a teacher response: “You know what, I’m not sure. We wouldn’t do this, but if we cut it down and looked at the tree’s trunk, there would be all these rings. And if we counted them, we’d know how many years old it was. So if there were 4 rings, this tree is 4 years old, just like you.”
The teacher never wants to utter the words, “I don’t know” to a child who genuinely wants to know, and in this case, I don’t want to admit that, in all likelihood, no one knows when this tree’s birthday is.
“I think he’s older than me. He’s really big,” tipping his head back, as if a little more scrutinizing will successfully lead him to an answer—a day, a month, a year.
“He’s probably older than me even. How old do you think I am?”
He ponders for a good thirty seconds, looking around at the other kids and adults on the playground, and shivering a little because it is early spring in New York City: “A hundred?”
“Nope! A lot younger than that. I’m 22.”
As if continuing on from his original question, he says, “Because if we knew his birthday, we could have a party for him.”
“I know, I was thinking the same thing. Okay, give me your hand, we gotta go.”
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear….” My body quivers and stiffens as I hear this being sung to a patient down the hall the moment I am staring out the hospital window at a row of evergreen trees. When is this tree’s birthday? Where is that little boy now, seven year later? The heartbreaking reality of working at a daycare center is the never-ending string of goodbyes, to children you spend months teaching how to tie shoelaces and wash hands. Because if we knew his birthday…. The song ends.
I stop looking at the trees and instead watch the slow drip of the IV bag, that mesmerizing regular movement of liquid emptying into my bloodstream by way of my hand. What is it I always think but rarely say to describe these grueling hospitalizations? For all that is being pumped into me gradually, and at other times, rapidly, my spirit’s lifeblood is gradually, and at other times, rapidly, draining right out of me. Physically, I make it out alive, but mentally is another story.
After six years of fighting a disease with no cure, it all seems to culminate in this poignant moment of remembering a tree and a child, a moment that feels light-years away from where I am now, physically, mentally: I am going on day five of nothing but clear liquids and day two of nothing but a daily 8-oz glass of water, which I extract with a tiny ridged sponge on the end of a plastic stick, as skinny as a twig. I am waiting to have my large intestine surgically removed so that I don’t die from severe ulcerative colitis or its brutal drug therapies. Or by own hand, for that matter.
Having narrowly missed spending a birthday in the hospital, there existing too many possibilities of doing such, I work out the math for the trio of surgeries required—there is a good chance I will be sung to right here, on my 30th [Day of the Dead] birthday. If I dread this milestone of a birthday, it will be for reasons that involve stretching my pain tolerance to a horrific, nearly unbearable degree. If I look forward to this milestone of a birthday, it will be because I could never face this annual event thinking, yet another year gone, but rather, yet another year, very fortunately, lived.