It's been a long year since I turned thirty eight. Some amazing and positively life changing events have taken place and I dare say that I have never been happier to be alive.
That said, the start of it was a rocky introduction to say the least.
Last year it was with great trepidation that I drove to my aunt's house the day before my birthday in order to bring her to the emergency room. She had been complaining of abdominal pain for a couple of weeks and we had initially thought that it was just a complication from the surgery she had had back over the winter.
Well, she thought that was the reason; I had my suspicions that it was something else.
I say that now, after the fact, but it is the truth. I had been through the devastation of my mom's cancer a year and a half prior, as well as my uncle in 1998, and grandmother, in 1980 before that. I come from what specialists call a "cancer family" and I suppose part of me was still thinking in those terms when she was describing the pain to me over the phone.
I told her I was coming home and I was taking her to the hospital. She reluctantly agreed.
And so it went that I got her in the car--my car--and drove her to Brigham and Women's hospital in Boston, parked in the tower parking garage, and walked with her to the admitting area. There we sat for four hours until they finally made room to fit her in. We sat in the intimately impersonal room and talked about all kinds of silly things to get our mind off the reason we were there. We talked together, close, while all around me there were people--some alone; others with huge families in tow--in varying states of distress.
We talked about my car, and how I needed to get a tune up; we talked about our plans for my birthday and how we were going to go out to eat at a great Indian place; we talked about the asparagus I had gotten for her the week prior and how good it was; and we talked about the possibility that she was sicker than she thought.
The doctors couldn't initially find anything wrong with her. All the tests came back negative. But they didn't want to let her go yet, so we stayed. And the surroundings seemed so familiar and fresh to me--spotlessly clean with hardly a primary color in sight, save for the control panes of the myriad machines in every room. The walls, though, were different. The walls, the sheets, the ceilings, the floors, the hallways, the tables, the chairs, the bathrooms, the elevators--all of these things were muted neutral colors: blues, grays, whites and browns.
When it became apparent that we would be there for a while, as they ran more tests, they wheeled in a hospital bed for me to lay on next to her; they were all nicer than nice. And my aunt--as was her way--made sure to mention to almost anyone who would come to help her--if their position was anywhere above that of the janitor--that I--her nephew--had just come back from Los Angeles where I had played on The Tonight Show, of all things! And Ellen, too! She said to anyone who would listen how good I was being, taking her to the hospital on the night before my birthday.
She had gotten used to singing my praises a bit later than my mother, but not without good reason.
And there we drifted in and out of sleep for a few hours side by side in the semi-permanent partitioned area in the emergency room wing of the hospital in Boston.
When the nurse came in again to check her vitals my aunt noticed that it was just about midnight. She asked for two cups of water and ice. When the clock struck twelve we toasted, and she sang me Happy Birthday, all by herself, in a voice that I will never--for better or for worse--forget. It began joyous, strong and sure, but quickly lost control like a single prop plane running out of altitude and gas, narrowly missing the ground. I hugged her tightly and thanked her and told her how much I loved her. She told me the same. We didn't cry a lot, but we did cry.
The next time I looked at the clock it was with bleary, irritated eyes; the big, round, black and white clock read 3 a.m.. The doctor came in and addressed my aunt. The whole place had simmered down, but it was still nowhere near quiet--kind of like a sleeping humming bird.
She woke up slowly and composed herself with a grimace. My aunt--like my mother before her--did not like company to show up unannounced, regardless of whose house we were at.
When the doctor sat down on the bed beside her I believe we both knew what was coming next. Doctors don't sit on the bed if they've got good news. No, that they report from a distance, perhaps so the whole family can smile at each other and hugs can come flying forth. But bad news is meant for tight quarters, as it isn't really welcome in the first place. It is meant for complex, slow movement, with shoulders back and jaws agape.
Bad news may travel fast, but only once it has been laboriously and methodically delivered.
And so it went that I hugged the other parent in my life and absorbed the bad news, slowly, incomprehensibly, but undeniably rife with devastating implications. And I call her "the other parent in my life" because she absolutely was. My mom was most assuredly my mom, but my aunt was more than just her sister. In conversation, when I referred to my mom and aunt, I would always call them "my folks". Because thats who they were.
Due to my tendency towards looking at life with an analogous mindset I see the beginnings and the ends of major periods in my existence as so many books in a personal library. I don't always know when a book is going to officially end if I'm currently reading it, but I have a good idea when it's starting to tidy things up. I can sense when the lighter stack of bound, printed pages is preparing to reunite, en masse, with its much denser familiar reserve. And eventually the pages that your right hand keeps sequestered--the pages that are new but relate, inherently, to those that came before it--eventually these pages slip away under your thumb and you are left with a few blank ones before you finally come to the thick back cover, glossy and stiff. And that is the point when it can't be denied that your book is done, that there are no more stories in it to tell, and you must put it up on the shelf with the ones that you've already read.
I have a lot of these books in my library now. Some are trilogies; some are giant tomes; some have pictures to go with them; some are full of rudimentary sketches and are barely comprehensible. But they have all been read, and they all have a beginning and an end, for that is what makes any book a book.
I wasn't aware that I was at the end of one book last May 8th. I had a feeling, but I won't say I was sure of it. I just knew that there was more of a chance of the worst case scenario happening than something else. And if that happened--if it was a mere case of diverticulitis, or an upset stomach--then I would have been pleased to find that there were a few pages that had been stuck together waiting for me to continue--possibly enough to take up years of my time. But that's not what happened.
And from 3 a.m. on May, 9 2008, until 1:00 a.m. September, 7 2008 another book was opened, read, and closed. It wasn't an easy book to get through, but at least I knew where I stood. And it made me sit up and pay attention and understand that I held in my hands a very short book, but one that was as important as any collection of consecutive pages to come before it.
And in the end it did get put up on the shelf with the rest of them, in chronological order but certainly not in order of importance.
And here I am, somewhere in the midst of another adventure. The book I am currently involved with, I am pleased to be able to say, documents one of the happiest times of my life. I never thought I could live my life like this. I never thought I could rid myself of all the stress and worry I used to carry so close. I never thought I could open my heart up for someone else like a faucet, letting the tap run for so long that the DPW puts my address on alert--"they must be doing work on the old Johnson house ... this meter's off the charts."
And this year I have a magical birthday in store for me. I will be spending it with a woman who I love with all my heart and soul--someone who my dear mother and aunt never got to meet, but perhaps that's only because they were so busy on the other side of this mortal stage calling the lights and pulling the curtains. The wings don't usually provide the best view, but it's always where the superstars gravitate to watch the show. I have to thank them, wherever they are, for what it's worth. It would be rude of me not to.
So tonight I will allow myself to be awake and aware at the stroke of midnight. I will allow myself to embrace the natural but orchestrated documentation of the passage of time into my thirty ninth year of life. I will remember the women--my folks--who sang to me, as they had for every single one of my birthdays prior, and reflect on all that has happened in the past three hundred and sixty five days. Then I will embrace and kiss my true love. I will protect with all my attention, awareness, and affection someone who didn't have to enter onto my stage when she did, as I admire whoever it is that is writing this play, and thank heaven above that I haven't the faintest idea how it will end ...
And as far as this book goes ... thanks so much for reading,