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Birthdays

Posted 12/4/2015

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  Tomorrow is my birthday, so I have been thinking more than usual about time and getting older and the great gift of life. Having recently been in Zimbabwe at a mission hospital, and then at a school where most children walked more than five miles each way and whose only meal of the day was the school lunch, I am especially aware of the accident of birth--and the extraordinary luck I had to be born to the parents I had, in this country, and in this time of the universe. From Luke 12:48 comes the famous quote: "To whom much is given, much will be required," It is more commonly quoted with a slight difference, and the emphasis on the necessity of giving back.

  Starting in my early 20s, I donated blood every year on my birthday. It seemed an appropriate way to share life on the day that I celebrated my own birth. Once breast cancer had been diagnosed, giving blood was no longer an option (although I understand that those Red Cross rules have been softened in some instances), but I have continued to make donations to important organizations or causes. On my 50th birthday, the first marker birthday after breast cancer, we hosted a lovely dinner, and, instead of place cards, I wrote thank you notes to each guest, left at their place, to express my gratitude and love.

  As time has continued to pass, and I have been lucky enough to continue to have birthdays, I have found myself in a place of grateful contemplation each year. On the lighter side, having cancer certainly reduced or even eliminated issues about aging for me. Rather than fighting the gray hair and sags and wrinkles, I am delighted to be alive to experience this part of life.

  On the more serious side, I think every year about all the people I know and love, the lives I have been honored to witness, the opportunities I have had to, I hope, make a positive difference in times of trouble. I think the theme song of my life, my professional life anyway, would be Bridge over Troubled Water. I will continue my whole life to lay me down. And to be gloriously enriched by the relationships I have had.

  Thinking a lot today about women whom I have known through their cancers, and about a few whom I have especially loved. I remember Terry who died during a bone marrow transplant for recurrent leukemia. She was the impetus, 25 years ago, for our Patient to Patient, Heart to Heart program. She came to my office to say something like: "You all do a good job with almost everything. But you don't make it easy for patients to find and help each other." She was right.

  I am thinking about Marilyn who died more recently from metastatic breast cancer. After her cancer recurred, her SO proposed, wanting to be her husband as long as they both shall live and wanting to adopt her adopted Korean daughter, so that the girl would always have a parent and a family. During the course of one day, Marilyn made her own funeral arrangements and chose the band for her wedding reception. Fortunately, the funeral didn't happen for several more years, but the absolute clarity with which she faced her life and her dying illuminated her days.

  I am thinking about Christine who died almost 30 years ago, when she was in her early 30s. During the last weeks of her life, she got down on her knees to tile the floor of the playroom in her house because she wanted "to be the solid foundation for my daughter." Literally, her little girl would continue to sit and stand and play on the floor that her mother made for her.

  Fortunately, most fortunately, there are mostly happy endings. As much as I have loved my work, I could not have continued for so long if every week or month brought that kind of sadness. Most of the women whom I have known do fine and go on to live long and healthy lives--perhaps even better lives than they might have had without cancer because they truly notice and appreciate their blessings.

  Today, leading up to my birthday, I am bursting with joy and gratitude and delight for Casey and her family. They are in another state right now to adopt a brand new beautiful baby girl. I have known Casey since she was diagnosed with breast cancer more than five years ago when she was 30. She and her husband comported themselves with courage and grace through a very grueling year of surgery and chemotherapy and radiation. Learning to move forward, to believe in life again, has been tough, but they have found their way to make the biggest leap of faith of all--to become parents. Their older adopted child is now 3, and the three of them are spending this week welcoming and loving and being so very grateful for a perfect baby girl. How lucky they all are, and her arrival feels like my own very best birthday present. Sharing in someone else's joy can be the very best gift of all.

  Do you know Raymond Carver's poem, Late Fragment:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth. 

I have been blessed with all I wanted and more.

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