It’s my birthday. For some reason, birthdays have never meant very much to me. I know about the day I was born because my mom told me that story over and over again. She and my dad were living with my grandparents. She went into labor during the day when my dad was working. My grandparents didn’t have a car so they asked their neighbor Vern if he could drive them to Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. Vern was nervous and driving fast so inevitably, he was stopped by the police. After they assessed the situation they wound up providing an escort for poor Vern and my mom.
Mom was in heavy labor but there was no chance of my arriving in the car. She told me she had an hourglass-shaped uterus and her kids got stuck in the narrow part. As her third baby, I was no exception. As she struggled away, the doctor, hardly dripping with my empathy, sternly looked her in the eye and said, “Dorothy, do you want to have this baby?” Evidently she complied. The other part of that day that she spoke of most often was getting wheeled to the nursery and looking for me amongst all the squalling infants. She said I was sound asleep, naked with a rashy rear end, elevated and ignored. I guess that was a sign of things to come.
There are no birthday photos of me in those little pointy hats with the elastic chinstraps or cakes and balloons. I know there were acknowledgments of my early years because I remember being told to make a birthday wish every year. I always wished I would get my own horse. After awhile, when it was clear that was never happening, I stopped the wishing part and evidently relegated the birthday to a lower echelon than big deal.
I did have a 13th birthday party. I think this happened because we lived in a Jewish neighborhood where many kids were having bar or bat mitzvahs that year. I had a light blue dress with white threads sewn into flower shapes on the bodice. I felt very grown up. I expect that was the point although no ceremonies were involved which inducted me into adulthood.
I also had a sweet sixteen at a restaurant called Jenny’s. I do have photos of that one. I got really nice gifts, felt included in the often unattainable cool crowd, and was happy to feel part of the social world around me. That made up for the scrabbling my family always seemed to be doing to cover the most basic needs.
So, this birthday. Why bother thinking about it? I was never daunted by the passing years. On occasion a birthday meant something. I was excited when I was able to vote. I never cared about being able to drink legally because I rarely drank, but still I felt legit. Given the lifestyle of my late teens and twenties, I noticed when I hit 30 because all my peers thought we’d be killed during the revolution of our youth, if not by the establishment, then perhaps by all the drugs we tried.
There was one birthday in 1989 that felt weighty because both my parents were diagnosed with cancer that year. Simultaneously Michael was elected to our local city council and promptly collapsed with a herniated disk that required surgery in the midst of all the other chaos. That year followed the emotional havoc of 1987 when my dear cousin committed suicide and 1988, when my beloved Fern took her life. Those three years made my world tilt on its axis. I was never the same after those traumas.
So I sailed on through 40, 50 and 60. My kids decided to throw me a big surprise party for the 60th and invited everyone they knew who’d been connected to my life. The surprise part went away when all those invited said they were coming and the kids needed some help paying for all the refreshments. Ha.
But that 60th was my last birthday with ease. The next year, Michael was diagnosed with cancer. Every second, every minute, every day was important as we wended our way through the miasma of disease and treatment. That’s when I really started learning how to live day by day, instead of just spouting off about it. Every morning when I opened my eyes and saw Michael breathing was better than any birthday. He would always say, I woke up so it’s a great day. I don’t think I’ll ever forget him saying that.
Last year, May was a downhill slide for him. On my birthday, I sat holding his hand as he lay quietly, mostly comatose, me pleading with him silently, please don’t die on my birthday, please don’t die on my birthday. And he complied, dying four days later on what I believe was my brother’s anniversary with his first wife. May is such a full month in my family.
So, why be spending so much time thinking about this birthday? I suppose it’s because I will be 67, the same age that Michael was when he died, the same age that my father was when he died. What a strange coincidence. I learned that not everyone will really live to be very old, unlike what we’re told by countless articles and television commercials. Some of us will be gone tomorrow or the next day. No one really knows what may happen any second. And that’s probably a good thing because when fearful times come, no amount of anticipation can ever truly prepare you for the hit.
So on this birthday, just in case, I’m taking time to notice what this age means for me. I’m mindful that my body feels and shows wear that didn’t used to be here. A graceful adjustment to those changes is a challenge. But I can still swim four or five days a week and while in the water, I’m still as able as I ever felt. I’m aware that my mind is as keen if not keener than it’s ever been. I feel intuitive and wise. I’m still quick verbally and can think on my feet. Michael wrote that an early death would mean missing Alzheimer’s. I can relate.
I’m still a political creature. I recently read a description of the French writer Octave Mirbeau which said, “Above all, he was a tireless campaigner for the causes of truth, justice, and the downtrodden—a man with very advanced ideas. A fellow novelist once said of him that every morning he got up angry and then spent the rest of the day looking for excuses to stay that way.” I chuckled when I read that, reminded of my own daily rage. I’m glad my youthful inclinations weren’t merely a phase but rather a foundation for my life.
As parts of me decline, I’m gaining ground in my head and my knowledge is expanding. I’m grateful for insatiable curiosity that has a life of its own even as I remain angry and frustrated that I didn’t get to have Michael until we were both ready to die together. If that time would ever have really arrived. I never stop wondering or exploring even on the days when I cry at the drop of the proverbial hat or at a note of one of the zillion songs that remind me of him.
Then there’s the gratitude. I’ve been incredibly well-loved. I had a wonderful partner who was busy worrying about how to comfort me as he faced his own death. The same guy who sold a catalogue of music he’d built for starting his own record store 42 years ago, to another person who also wanted to start a store. He did that so he could buy me a ticket to fly to California to visit Fern where I could decide whether I wanted to commit to our relationship or walk away. Yeah, that happened. All around me are the manifestations of that love which kept growing, despite everything and anything, which lasted until his death and is still burning alive inside me. He said he’ll be with me forever and I believe that. How lucky am I?
Then there are my two children who are as close to me as children can be to a parent. They trust me, value me as a person. and they love me deeply. With all the twists and turns life takes while you raise a family, I got one that’s real, deep and substantive, another precious lucky gift when such things can often turn out so sadly. I even have a wonderful relationship with my son-in-law and am lucky to have two healthy grandchildren. I know so many people who hunger for these things in their lives.
I have my sister and sister/cousins who provide a web of support from wherever they are. And I have other extended family with whom I’ve managed to maintain caring relationships.
And then there’s my chosen family, comprised mainly of young people who were part of our family life through ties with my kids or other random connections. They rejuvenate me and keep from floating off into old people land. They enrich me by sharing their lives with me and continuing to be part of my world as they grow and develop their adult lives. If I was religious I guess I’d say I was blessed. Mostly I just feel fortunate. I’ve been able to cast a wide net which makes for a stimulating world.
I love my beautiful, old beater of a home. I feel as good in it today as I did when we moved here 40 years ago. The rooms literally vibrate with warmth and comfort. That it could be this way after Michael died here is testimony to the endurance of love. A few harsh months didn’t diminish what makes a home for years. And there is my beloved garden. After hurling myself at this vast space for so long, it is my gift to everyone who sees it. I never get tired of looking at its beauty, even though I know the weeds may kill me and I’m likely to fall over in my flowers while I attempt to control the chaos of the life that pushes out of the ground without my permission.