The summer I was 40, I longed to be 43. Not 39. Not 18. Not pre-baby, yet post drinking age.
I knew that if I made it to 43, I’d have reached the two-year mark in remission from Aggressive B Cell non Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer most likely to return in the first two years post treatment. I knew that on the day I turned 43, I’d likely have the worst of my battle with cancer behind me, and my whole life ahead of me. That day is today.
I haven’t been this excited about a birthday since my 21st, when I sauntered into a liquor store in HoHoKus, New Jersey, grabbed a six-pack of Michelob from the fridge and plunked it on the checkout counter. When the cashier started to ring me up, I asked, “Aren’t you going to card me? It’s my birthday.” He replied, “Nah, you seemed too happy, so I figured you’re legal.”
My birthdays never got much better than that — until now. I started rounding up my age last November when I officially hit the two-year mark in remission. Before that, I was reporting my age like a third grader would: “I’m 42 and a half…I’m 42 and three-quarters.”
Of course, it helps to feel excited about your birthday when you’re not spending it inside a PET scan machine, like I did last year. Rather, I spent the morning putting the author in Author Day in my son’s fifth grade classroom, listening to some very imaginative and creative 10- and 11-year-olds read aloud the stories they’d written. Then I told the kids what it’s like to be a published author, magazine writer and blogger. When I finished, two boys rushed over with pens and white-lined paper in their hands.
“Can I have your autograph?” one kid asked. As I signed his paper in teal marker, he said, “That’s going to be worth a bundle someday.”
Good luck with that, boys.
Tonight, there will be dinner with my husband and sons, and we’ll probably finish off the chocolate cake we started eating last night, the one with the musical candle holder that plays “Happy Birthday to You.” There’ll be Champagne, which was an early gift from my husband, and homemade cards from the boys.
Now, I’m not foolish enough to think that I’ll saunter into 2010 like I did that liquor store and never have to deal with cancer’s effects again. I will have two PET scans this year, but that’s easier to face than the three I had last year and the four the year before. And then there are the post-treatment “reminders,” like the eight tiny black radiation tattoos I decided not to remove after all, thus saving 600 bucks because my insurance company considers them “cosmetic” and won’t pay for removal. Or the occasional pains in my rib cage, a side effect of chemotherapy that’s exacerbated by my stubborn refusal to considerably ratchet down my workouts. (See: Armstrong, Lance).
Some of those pains woke me up last night. As I waited for them to subside, I listened to my family sleeping and the snow plows clearing the roads out front. I thought about my 21st birthday, my 10th, my 16th, my 30th. I thought about the summer I was 40, when I wasn’t sure if I’d live to 43, and I thought, Happy Birthday to me. And that, I’m certain, is worth a bundle.
Watch Jen’s speech, “If Cancer is a Gift, Where Can I Return it?” from her Kiss Cancer Goodbye party.