And so I have had another birthday. When you've had as many as I have, you find, after a while, that you have collected all types: fun, serene, lonely, devastating.
My worst birthday, bar none, was in 2002. It was a chilly but lovely late-autumn day, and I was meeting my brother for lunch. On my way out the door, I passed a knot of worried-looking reporters and editors in the corner of the newsroom. I heard one of them say that a small plane had crashed in northern Minnesota and authorities weren't sure, but they feared that it was the plane that carried Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila. They had flown that morning to attend a funeral on the Iron Range.
This troubled me all through lunch, and finally Tommy asked me what was wrong, and I told him. He was so instantly upset he grew pale, and he stopped in the street and said, "Why would they think that? Why would they think that?" Wellstone was one of his heroes.
It was, indeed, Wellstone's plane, and everyone on board had been killed. I was at work very late that night, and for many nights afterward, editing stories about the crash and its aftermath. It wasn't the late hours that made it a bad birthday; it was the sadness. Definitely the saddest birthday ever.
My hardest birthday was the year I turned 47. It suddenly hit me that day that I was now the age my sister had been when she was diagnosed with cancer. Somehow being the age that she was when she found out she was doomed was devastating in a whole new way; it made that whole sad five years come roaring back. I remember feeling something similar the day I turned 18, which was the age my brother was when he drowned.
Three years ago, I turned 49 in rural French Canada. That was a lovely birthday--we spent a week in Montreal and a week driving through the Eastern Townships, past picture-postcard apple orchards and white steepled churches and through villages that looked like New England but where everyone spoke French. On my birthday, in Knowlton, it snowed, wet heavy snow, and we took a walk and got soaked and then had a lavish dinner in the restaurant of our inn.
We have celebrated my birthday Up North, where I had birthday berry pie instead of birthday cake, and we have celebrated while still jetlagged from being in Ireland.
My most awkward birthday was many years ago, in Duluth; I was just heading out to a concert of early music at the college nearby when who should up, his black Lab and a bag of presents in tow, but my ex-boyfriend.
He had dumped me just weeks before when I was in Scotland with my friend Katy, and now here he was, bearing gifts all wrapped up in tin foil. (As I recall, he gerry-rigged just about everything, including wrapping paper.) I should not have been surprised to see him; guilt is a powerful motivator.
Truth be told, I would rather have gone to the concert; the highlight of that awkward evening was when Toby, who had never liked the black Lab, went on the offensive, and cornered the bigger dog.
Yesterday, I had yet another birthday. My fifty-second. The number doesn't bother me, at least not yet; I don't fear getting older, I only fear getting decrepit, and so far I have no symptoms.
Here's what I did on my birthday: I got up early. I opened presents as the sun came up, and then Doug and I took the dogs for a long walk through the park. I exercised with Mr. Darcy. (Though actually I have left Mr. Darcy far behind and now it's "Wives and Daughters.") I read. I did two loads of laundry, vacuumed the downstairs, and cleaned the bathroom. I took a nap.
We took the dogs for another long walk to California Street, in the buttery golden sunshine of one of the last mild and sunny days of fall. I read. I made a big vat of curry, using a recipe sent by a friend. I drank a beer. We watched a movie. ("Two Days in Paris.") I ate some ice cream. I got into bed. I read.
Now, how does that differ from any other random Saturday? Other than the presents and the ice cream, it doesn't. It's my regular Saturday routine. And at my advanced age, with all the wisdom I have accumulated through my many, many birthdays, I have to say that that's the best gift of all: Having a routine that you love, and by the grace of the gods of good luck and good health, being allowed to keep to it.
The picture at the top of the page is a road sign from rural Quebec. It refers, of course, to the unseen hazards and possibilities just ahead. But it could just as easily be a road sign about life. What will this year bring? Where will next birthday be? You don't know. You just don't know. You just keep going, and hope for the best.
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