Happy Birthday.

Everybody sing!

Just What I Needed.

It’s been ten years now since my cancer diagnosis, the perfect time to see that the hospital where I went for treatment offers an Introduction To Chemotherapy class. It’s a great idea and I’m glad it’s being offered, but where was it when I needed it? I could have used something like that when I was at the beginning of treatment—it would have been even better to have it before the first day I walked into the clinic scared out of my mind because I had no idea what chemotherapy was going to be like or what it would involve. I’d watched Breaking Bad and seen Walter White go the clinic for treatment but I don’t recall actually seeing what that involved until close to the end of the final season, when he was living alone in a cabin in New Hampshire. And, in spite of knowing far too many friends who’d been through cancer themselves, I didn’t realize he was getting chemotherapy. I’d also read memoirs by people about their own cancer battles, specifically Robert Schimmel’s Cancer On $5 A Day (which was originally supposed to be called I Licked The Big C), Gilda Radner’s It’s Always Something, and Julia Sweeney’s God Said Ha!

So I was prepared to face cancer with a lot of humor. And I was prepared for side effects, which I got. My hair fell out, I had bouts of nausea, and my fingernails got dark and crusty. I got a rash from sunlight. And I felt tired all the time. What I wasn’t prepared for was what the process of getting chemotherapy actually meant. Nothing I’d read or seen, I thought, actually showed what happens to a person getting chemo, so I imagined it was too gruesome to be shown or even described. This may sound really stupid, and my wife and other people have even asked me, “Why didn’t you ask about it before you started?” Because I was terrified of what it meant but also trying to put on an unnecessary brave face. And whatever chemotherapy involved I was going to go through it because the other option was, to be blunt, death.

Here’s what happened on my first day, and every subsequent full session after that: I went into the clinic and sat down in a room. Some nurses came in and gave me a few pills and a cup of water. Because it was really cold in the clinic, in spite of it being 90 degrees outside, they offered me a warm blanket. They brought in an IV pole with a bag full of fluid, stuck a needle in my arm, and said, “Call us if you need anything” and left me there by myself for three hours. When the bag of fluid was empty an alarm went off, they came and took the needle out of my arm, and that was it.

When someone gets a cancer diagnosis they’re bombarded with information: what it means, what their chances are, what their treatment options are. I get that a detail like “At least part of your treatment will involve sitting in a chair for hours so figure out something to do with your time” is not something most doctors will think to say.

And I doubt any of them would recommend filling that time with some bad lip syncing.

Intimations Of Mortality.

So I’m marking another elliptical spin around the sun, another year in the rearview mirror. This isn’t a milestone year so it’ll be a quiet affair: dinner, maybe a few drinks, a quick jaunt to Sri Lanka and back. When we’re young every birthday is a major event. Turning one is worthy of celebration, even if most of us don’t remember it, at two we’ve doubled our age, at three we’ve tripled it. At four, five, and six we really start to explore the world on our own, make friends, try on and discard personas. Ten marks the beginning of the double digits but the next big step isn’t until thirteen, considered in many cultures to be the age of adulthood, although its onset usually starts earlier. At sixteen, in the US, you can drive a car, at eighteen you can vote, and at twenty-one you can legally drink. Then the way stations only come once every ten years: thirty is when you say you’ve got the whole adulting thing figured out, even though you haven’t and never will, and at forty you’re “over the hill”. The Eternal Footman who holds your coat and snickers stands a little closer. Fifty is the half-century mark and from there, well, the years roll on at the same rate but they seem to go by faster.

Thirty years ago on another birthday I wrote this poem:

I’d like to sleep late,
Warm in my cocoon, stretch,
Before throwing the sheet
Off like a lost ship’s hatch
And like a single sailor stand
Looking out over miles of empty sea
Without a single stretch of land
To disrupt any possibility.
The reality’s more mundane:
Alarm clock, dark fumbling, shower.
All through it my brain
Mutters that I have work in an hour.
A birthday passed is like death:
A miracle without fanfare.
One moment you’re drawing breath,
The next you only once were.

It’s morbid but the truth is I really do think of birthdays as something to celebrate. The older I get the more I come back around to every one being a milestone, another year that I feel lucky just to be here.