I rarely call much attention to my own birthday, especially since I passed 40 so long ago it’s almost disappeared from my rearview mirror. If you count the two transplant surgeries, I get to celebrate three birthdays a year. Unlike the original one, I can remember those two.
But, this year is different.
Last year, my birthday landed on Memorial Day. It’s something that happens every few years. It’s a bit surreal having a birthday that occasionally lines up with a roaming holiday like Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Thanksgiving. At the end of May, cold and flu season is long over. You don’t have to worry about being sick on your special day. But, last year, there was some kind of bug going around and I coughed and sneezed all weekend. I wondered if it was some kind of omen about the year to come.
It turns out that it was.
In the late fall, I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a highly curable form of it, but it was cancer just the same. That meant chemotherapy and all the nasty side effects that go with it. By the time I had been at it for nine weeks, I was cured. The word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘intense.’ It was a relatively brief encounter with The Big C, but it left me reeling for a few months afterward.
Last winter, I spent a lot of time watching TV. Beside sleeping and checking e-mail once in a while, it was the only thing I felt like doing. I saw a commercial in which a woman sang “Happy Birthday” and said it was for everyone who had survived cancer to celebrate another birthday. First of all, it was nice to see a commercial where no one was trying to sell me anything. It was a relief to see one that wasn’t so weird and vague that I was left wondering just what the message was. And it was really special to be honored in such a way.
That commercial was months early for me, but I had faith that I would live to mark another year. I’ve always loved having a birthday this time of year. It was always during those first, sweet days of summer vacation from school. It put the period (sometimes the exclamation mark) at the end of the school year. Move on to the next grade, then turn a year older.
I share a birthday (May 31st) with celebrities Clint Eastwood, Joe Namath, Brooke Shields, and writer Walt Whitman. Now, there’s a mixed bag!
This year, I share the celebration with everyone who has beat cancer and those living with it that made it through another year. After cancer, life just doesn’t look the same. We’re part of the same tribe now. We have a bond.
You know what they say about getting older—it beats the alternative.
I belong to a few other tribes who know this fact better than most people do. There are the others who had a kidney/pancreas transplant. There are those who had another type of transplant. There are the diabetics—that includes the current and former ones (like me).
This birthday will be especially sweet. The cancer was timed well in my case. I get to look and feel like myself again on that day. I’m a year older, but thanks to the cancer, I’m “new and improved” in many ways. Once you’ve dealt with cancer, everything else seems pretty easy.
And so, to all of us who have survived something intense, whether it was health-related, a natural disaster, or something caused by the malice or carelessness of another—Happy Birthday. No matter what day it is.