Birthdays are a strange thing. In our family we have a guarded attitude towards the special days because they are tinged with sadness and poignancy.
In 1998, my mother died on her 65th birthday. Every year I struggle to get through that day. Then in 2007, my step-mother, with whom I was also very close, died. On her 75th birthday. When birthdays approach in our family, we half joke (in that totally inappropriate way which Scots are rather good at) that we hope we get through the day. Not so deep down, we are very nervous about our own and each others’ birthdays.
When I woke up yesterday, on my birthday, I was in a strange mood. My recent unexpected health escapade meant that I cancelled my plan to celebrate my birthday somewhere new. I would be spending my day in Yangon and it was impossible not to associate the day with the birthday I marked not long after arriving in Myanmar in 2009. It was a Big Birthday – one ending with a zero, and due to paperwork difficulties we were not able to travel, so any wish bucket plans were not possible to realise. Furthermore, being in the middle of rainy season it meant that travel anyway even nearby was not really a great idea. So we marked the day in Yangon, visiting the beautiful Shwe Dagon temple in the daytime, and then with a small group of friends in the evening.
I was totally oblivious to the fact that I was nurturing two already significant tumours and was blissfully unaware of the turn life was going to take in a few short weeks. Now, on my birthday, in addition to the association of birth days with death days, I have the added association of my 2009 birthday with Breast Cancer. And that starts to explain my mood yesterday, when I found myself fighting back tears before I had even got out of bed.
However, I had decided to take a day’s leave and was determined to have a relaxing and indulgent day. I opened up my constant companion (my laptop) in anticipation of birthday greetings through email and Facebook. And it was wonderful – messages had arrived overnight, and more were streaming in from around the world. There are some things which Facebook is very good at.
As I skimmed through my newsfeed, however, my eye caught an update which I struggled to understand initially. Then the realisation sank in. My blogging sister Jenny, author of Get out Gertrude, had passed away the previous evening. We knew that time was limited for her, but as her family said in the notice it was far sooner than expected. Those tears which had been on standby behind my eyes sprang into action.
Jenny and I had connected through our blogs and twitter interactions based on our (albeit different) breast cancer diagnoses. Jenny had been diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) which is notoriously aggressive and although Stage 4, she was leading a very full and meaningful life. She was studying, blogging regularly and a tireless active advocate on IBC. She tells the full story on her blog. As the disease has progressed and treatment options limited, we knew that her time with us was limited. But with regular activity online and her incisive and wise insights, the severity of her physical health was hidden behind a strong vibrant voice. I will miss her enormously, but value how much I learned from her. Her post on talking to her youngest daughter, who has special needs, is one which will always stay with me and shows her strength, humanity, openness and selflessness. The fact that she documented and shared this when time and energy were precious, and sadly limited, shows her generosity.
As I am based in Asia, and Jenny in New Zealand we are in a small number of bloggers/tweeters in this side of the planet. So, for example, while the weekly #bcsm discussion would be underway on Monday evenings in the US, Jenny and I would be joining from Tuesday morning/lunchtime. I think of us as the “Tuesday bloggers”. Her passing on a Tuesday is strangely meaningful and comforting to me personally.
It was probably a good thing that I had decided to take the day of my birthday off work. In my poignant and pensive frame of mind, I could focus on Jenny as well as the preoccupations which had already been crowding my thoughts. So I moved back to my Facebook feed and the greetings, so that I could attempt to respond to each message individually. When I was young I was always brought up to send a thank you note for presents and cards, and never seemed to quite finish the task. So I have tried to redress the balance in this Facebook era. As messages came through from different parts of the world, the phrase “many returns of the day” and its inference echoed round and round in my mind. And then one message hit me with an almost physical force as it resonated so much with my emotional place.
“Happy Birthday! I’m so glad you are around for another one!!! ”
And that was it in a nutshell. When I found the lump in September 2009, I thought I would not be around for the forthcoming Christmas, never mind birthdays one, two or even three years hence. None of us has any idea how many more “returns of the day” we will have, but to have three is something I am incredibly thankful for. My relationship with mortality has matured and changed beyond recognition and I do not take these “returns” for granted any more.
So, today is August 2nd. And here’s another strange coincidence. Today is Rachel’s birthday. Her close friend Sarah has shared a post which Rachel’s mother has written. My fears and associations connected with my own birthday, Jenny’s passing and Rachel’s birthday are all joining together in an emotional whirlpool.
But mixed with that emotion is a sense of bittersweet gratitude. It is the day after my birthday. and I am overwhelmingly thankful. Thankful that I did indeed wake up today! Thankful that there have been returns of the day which I feared there would not be. I am thankful that I am most clearly around for another one!
And most of all, I am thankful for the rich friendship of very special women like Jenny and Rachel.