I’m not one to stick to something like Oprah’s habit of listing 5 things she’s grateful for every day (i.e., I can hardly keep up with regular daily work and chores), but I suppose I do something similar, albeit on a subconscious level and give or take 1-2 things. But there are certain days or events that seem to call for reflection, which I’m sure a lot of you out there relate to as well. Maybe it’s your birthday, or a particular holiday, an anniversary or a day when something incredibly joyous or painfully sad occurred. A day that stands out and makes you think about what you have, but also that not even the firmest grasp on the contents of your life can be anything other than precarious and fragile. For me, that day is today, October 5.

Three years ago today I experienced months of severe illness finally come to a climax, or should I say denouement? Lips blue, face pale, eyes sunken, heart irregularly beating, breathing severely strained, muscles practically not working and pain that affected every inch of my body, it was just another day being in denial for me–“high tolerance for pain” is an understatement when it comes to me, so I kept on going, teaching, living, lying. Until my usually bubbly doctor, rendered speechless by my extremely low blood count and levels across the board, forced me to hospitalize myself. A call at the New York Botanical Garden. His wavering voice. Alicia. Alicia. Listen to me. I still took the time to pick out a bag full of peaches at the farmer’s market, a bag I could not hold on the subway. A bag I had to put on the floor. I cannot even hold a bag of peaches. I cry about the peaches. I am going to go home and make a pie. Would I have time? I never made the pie. I thought about the peaches every day. They rotted in the bag, on the kitchen table. Just as my own body was rotting. Both because of my total disregard and quixotic thought process. I was those peaches I will never forget the image of them rotting in the bag on the kitchen table, an image I would never actually see. My mom’s words: “If Alicia had her choice, she’d sit in a room and rot.”

It rained every single one of the six days I spent in the hospital, lying there completely conscious, but unable to walk much, forbidden to eat, and constantly on the receiving end of, “God you’re so young to be this sick.” (Colitis and anemia were kicking my butt). So many memories from these days, but one that sticks out is asking my roommate to bring me the book I was reading at the time, poignantly, The Portrait of a Lady and a notebook and pen. Even before I wrote “professionally,” I never went anywhere without a pen and at least a small piece of paper, receipt, etc. I knew this was definitely not a time to forego having such instruments, unsure of what the coming days would entail but coherent enough to realize I wanted my thoughts down on paper, and also as a way to process how I could let myself deteriorate so much without acting.

Re-reading my writing from these days brings me to tears: the stubbornness about my health, the naive disregard for or inability to appreciate my life. Was it pride? Obstinacy? A foolish belief that I was somehow immortal? The quixotic resolve that I adhere to that exceeds all logic? I still have no idea. During the first few days, I wrote things like:

“Days are blending, or rather not existing as ‘days’ in the first place.” “I kept on pretending I didn’t need help.” “So strange to feel my body shutting down over weeks and months. How much longer till I would have died?” “I screamed into my pillow at home and soaked an entire bath towel with tears when the doctor said something additionally might be wrong with my heart.” “My face is completely drained of color, except for red peeling skin around my eyes, and my hair is falling out. I can’t believe it’s me when I look into the mirror. I had stopped looking.”

One of the last things I write is a scribbled “constant blood taking hands hurting.” I had blood taken at least 6 times a day, so the veins in my arms were totally shot by the second day. So they move on to your hands. I can still remember the moment when they did this the first time. I looked on when the needle plunged into my hand, wincing in pain, and suddenly saying out loud to my mom or in my head (I can’t remember), “Oh god, I won’t be able to write. How can they do this? I need to write. Not my hands….” I cried when I tried to write after that, not even able to grasp the pen in either hand and feeling so upset by this. Every time I heard the sound of the blood-taking cart getting louder and louder, nearing my room, tears welled up because it was always for me. Pain I could handle, but the inability to express myself was devastating. I would never look at my hands the same way again, so thankful that everyday I can use them, to write, to hold a book, to knead bread, to make a pie crust, to hold a door for someone, to use period. But onto the whole celebrating life thing…

Because October 5 fell on a weekend this year, I decided to make the whole weekend a “be grateful to be alive” one. There is rarely a day that goes by now that I don’t feel happy to be living, but I figured in order to “celebrate” I would tackle those New York things I have yet to get around to doing, as well as those that wouldn’t have even been on the radar three years ago. So, a lot of “firsts” and a few old familiar favorites.

-Three years ago today, I couldn’t walk 10 feet without getting winded, so I took a 32-mile bike ride on Saturday to go see Flushing Meadows Corona Park (and the World’s Fair remnants). I was literally smiling ear to ear when I got there, gazing up at the extraordinary Unisphere against a perfectly blue sky, with that autumn chill in the air.

-I would have to quit my job at the New York Botanical Garden because of poor health, and that was also where I was when my doctor originally called me, “Alicia, ALICIA, listen to me, you have to go to the ER….”, so yesterday I went to the Queens Botanical Garden, the only NYC garden I had yet to visit, and watched a wedding.

-I would also have to quit my museum education job, so today I visited the New York Transit Museum, which explores the various modes of movement around the city, none of which I could use for a quite a while back then.

-Along the same lines, I sat along the Flushing Bay Promenade and watched planes land at LaGuardia, knowing that now I can travel when then I couldn’t.

-Three years ago today, I started a 6-day streak of doctor-ordered no-food diet because my digestive system was in shambles. Not eating for that long really dehumanizes you, to the point that I couldn’t eat even when I was allowed. I had lost that routine and still remember staring at hospital mashed potatoes and not knowing what to do, how to use a fork, how to chew. It was like culture shock. So, this weekend, I tried new recipes, got apple cider donuts from the farmer’s market, cookies from the Treats Truck, brisket and Turkish Delight at a festival and, in general, ravenously ate without a care.

To sum it up, three years ago I was alive but not living, being but not doing. Now I can claim both.