A Happy Birthday


I spent my twenty-fourth birthday in an outpatient cancer clinic. I had a lumbar puncture that day—in which a chemotherapy agent was injected directly into my spinal cord. After that, I was led out to the infusion bay where I was to receive still more chemotherapy, this time as an infusion and with the use of an IV pump and the ash-split (picture two tubes with plastic clamps and nozzles) hanging from my chest.

I don’t remember being upset about spending my birthday that way; treatment had, at that point, been my regular routine—my life—for seven months. It simply made sense to be at the cancer clinic and if the receptionist, when checking me in, or the nurses, when verifying my identity before administering my chemo, wished me a “Happy Birthday”, then great. Wonderful.

You can imagine, Dear Readers, my surprise when, after settling into an infusion chair, additional members of my care team began to arrive in the bay. I didn’t have time to ponder their appearance because it seemed, suddenly, as though everyone—the medical assistants, the nurses, my oncologist, anyone that wasn’t in the middle of an appointment with another patient—had gathered around me, singing “Happy Birthday” in beautiful chorus. One of the research nurses rolled out a cake that she had baked and decorated with buttercream frosting. A helium balloon was tied to my chair.

If I didn’t cry in that moment, I have cried nearly every time since when recalling that day. The memory of that birthday—the first birthday I shouldn’t have had—has become a touchstone for me. In moments in which I feel alone, I remember my care team filling that infusion bay. On days when I question my right to be here, to be alive, I think of their bright smiles, their singing, their wishes for a good day, a healthy future. When I fall into the trap of dreading the aging process, of thinking that I haven’t accomplished enough for my age, I remember the flood of gratitude, the lifting of my heart, that that one balloon and cake perpetuated.

As I embark on my thirtieth year of life, it would be dishonest of me to say that I have no concerns, no sense of loss. The truth is, I do grieve the life that I thought I would have had by now (i.e. stable career, marriage, house, planning a first pregnancy). I do often wonder if there’s been some cosmic error and I’ve been mistaken as an adult when I’m really just a big kid with no idea what she’s doing. I feel all of those things, I think of all of those things. But I also know that each successive year is a gift.

We were not guaranteed our first birthday.

We were never promised that we would see our eighteenth birthday.

We were not assured that our thirtieth birthday would ever arrive.

Will remaining positive about aging be easy? Certainly not. Will there be moments when nostalgia strikes and blinds me to all of the wonderful things currently unfolding in my life? Sure. But, I refuse, absolutely refuse, to take this birthday for granted. I refuse to be ashamed of the laugh lines appearing on my face. I refuse to be angry toward the aching and often pain-riddled body that has carried me this far.

Until my next birthday arrives, this will be my best year.

This birthday—this big, beautiful milestone of a birthday that almost never happened—is a gift I fully intend to embrace.