As the overindulged youngest child in a multigenerational family, my birthdays were like Christmas in August – and Christmas was another embarrassment of excess that left me feeling unsettled and guilty. We were just a middle class family of seven, including my maternal grandmother, but my mother was such a proficient money manager that I never realized the sacrifices my parents made for me until I was an adult. Then, still bearing a sense of unworthiness for having done so little to receive so much, I traded inherent selfishness for compulsive selflessness. Gifts became a symbol of the pleasure I could give to others.
When my son was born, I gained an instinctive understanding of how selflessness can be balanced by healthy selfishness. His birthday follows mine by three days, making him the best belated birthday gift ever. The year I turned 40, Chris turned 13. Talk about lousy planning! Our birthdays being linked on the calendar became a symbol of the elemental connection running through me from my mother to my son and the birthdays I spent together with them were deeply satisfying.
Four years ago I celebrated my very first birthday with my husband-to-be, who was the most unexpected gift of all. If I had written a grocery list itemizing everything I wanted to find in one man, I would have shredded it and laughed at myself for being a deluded romantic. Apparently, I was shopping in the wrong places all those years. After Luis gave me a hopeful new life, receiving birthday and Christmas gifts seemed redundant.
Today is my birthday. Statistically, this is my eleventh birthday without my mother and my second since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Last year my birthday arrived near the low point between my first and second chemotherapy treatments, which is why I have no distinct recollection of that birthday. One way to describe my chemotherapy experience is to imagine a powerful tornado that carries you in slow motion away from your life, strips you of your perspective and control, and then dumps you back on the same exact spot too weak and nearly helpless to cope.
So you might be surprised to learn that I consider cancer to be one of the most monumental and unlikely gifts in my life – like motherhood and marriage, a gift that keeps on giving. I already had happiness, love and support. Cancer has given me a new kind of clarity, proportion, gratitude and sense of freedom.
When every day is a special blessing that you cannot take for granted, a birthday is just another wonderful day.