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I Know How to Love Me

It amazes me, the way our brains can handle two lines of thought separately, and seem to deliberately keep them that way. I’ve been very cognizant that it’s my birthday; and also, wondering why this week has felt difficult and I’ve had so much trouble focusing. 

I’ve had a hard time celebrating my birthday since Oscar was born, and after losing Hawthorne, I just don’t see the point. This year is an improvement over the past few; I’m able to say it without crying, and I haven’t spent the week leading up to it in absolute despair. This year, it’s a little closer to just another day on the calendar, and a little further from being a reminder of the ones I love most who don’t get them anymore. 

Hawthorne was the birthday celebrator. They’d wheedle me into taking time off from work to celebrate, to go do something fun, have a fancy dinner or dessert. They grew up in a family where birthdays were important and special. 

In my family, things were much more muted. We would go to a nice dinner, something would arrive with a candle, and that was pretty much it. The effort went into the kids parties: what to do, how many guests, how many conversations to watch my sugar or chocolate intake. As a parent now, I’m already exhausted by the thought of Lucy’s school-age birthday parties. I don’t blame my parents for keeping our own celebrations more subdued.

For Hawthorne’s 36th birthday, we went all the way up to Burlington with a friend to see the movie Midsommer. I felt utterly traumatized; I could hardly acknowledge the aesthetic beauty of the film, and certainly had no interest in analyzing it. I just wanted to get as far away from it as possible. I’m sure now that this is because I was 5 months pregnant at the time, and far more sensitive than usual to certain types of horror. I cried the whole way home, my fingernails digging into my arms as I tried to hold back the outright sobs. I may have been distraught but I did not want to ruin it for Hawthorne. As it turns out, it was the last year of “normal” birthdays. 

It is now my 36th year, and I find myself thinking about the film more and more. I don’t know if I’m ready to watch it again; yet scenes play over and over in my mind. In the movie, 36 is considered the midpoint of one’s life. While I don’t feel as if I’m in the throes of a mid-life crisis, there has definitely been a shift. Coming out of the season of depression I was recently so deep in, I have made a lot of changes. I’ve started to transition my diet (at home) to more plant-based and pescatarian. I’ve started running again, and as difficult as that has been, the joy of feeling the wind on my face as I plod along could not be more incentive to keep at it. I have missed running. 

I am being more proactive about my health. With hypertension that began in my twenties, and two rounds of gestational diabetes under my belt, I understand that the risk of developing heart disease and type II diabetes are very real for me. And while I believe that people can be healthy at any size, I don’t feel like am at my optimal size or health. 

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t questioning myself to death over this. Both my parents died at 63. My father did everything “right:” he exercised, he ate extremely healthy, had something like 7% body fat. I mean, the man was 2 seconds off the time to qualify for the Senior Olympics in the 800 meter race. He was fit as a fiddle. And he got ALS. 

My mother wasn’t quite so well-behaved. She smoked as a teenager and young adult, as nearly everyone did then. She enjoyed her wine and her chocolate with less reserve than my dad wanted, and I remember his occasional admonishment, which she would wave off. And really, to be fair, her usual dessert was trail mix – which is just more evidence to the hard-ass my dad was about sweets. Trail mix had chocolate chips in it, and was automatically unhealthy to him. 

She had some health problems, but were seemingly well managed; then one day she had a hypertensive event, was diagnosed with a 10-day old heart attack and stage 3 cancer, and was gone just days later. 

It definitely feels like a sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. I lost my son to an umbilical cord accident, before he could even draw breath. I’ve lost family members in their eighties or nineties. And I lost my wife, my forever person, at age 37 on a normal, sunny Saturday. 

I am not afraid of death in the abstract; we have been friends for too long. I am afraid, however, of dying young. I have so much to say, and I am terrified that my time will be up before I have a chance to do that. Or, like my father, that some disease far outside my realm of possibility will steal my ability to do that. This is a fear that Oscar left me with; I need to tell my stories, and there is no telling when something will happen and abruptly end my chance. I ache for the time and space and bandwidth and energy. All of these are in short supply with a full-time job and a two-year old, and on the days I don’t quite get around to writing, the nagging fear is there to remind me that I’m going to leave things unsaid. 

The fear that Hawthorne left me with is quite different, and is currently, finally, stretched out face-down while the changing colors of the nightlight illuminate her curls. Now that spring has arrived, the days growing longer and the weather enticing us outside more, the TV is not on nearly as much, and I’m enjoying the company of my kiddo again. To watch her learn is just incredible. You can practically see the synapses dance as they find where to put each new piece of information. I don’t want to miss a moment. 

I have started the process of spelling out my end-of-life plans and wishes – my mom never had a chance to update the basic template she used, which made things difficult for my sister and I (and the wonderful people who helped us navigate that after her death); and though Hawthorne had spoken about death and what should happen “if and when,” there was no guidebook. Of course, now that Hawthorne is gone, there is Lucy to be even more worried about should something happen to me. I don’t want to see that light dimmed by anything.

And so, plans are in motion, some already in place. Bloodwork has been collected; medications and monitoring scheduled, and daily intentional movement and stillness have both increased to try to achieve some state of balance in what feels like a very busted-up body, mind, and soul. Two knees and one ankle scream at me after every installment of Couch to 5k; my abdomen is strengthening, though I feel like I have looked pregnant going on four years now. I forget how to breathe while I’m focused on breathing; as soon as I turn my attention to my form, it generally evens out.

There is nothing pretty or exciting about this; no “most improved!” award I’m aiming for. I am consciously not following the footsteps of my father, with his strive for perfection; or my mother, who would put off getting something checked out until she had time. I’m not doing this to get skinny, or look better for other people to enjoy. I don’t give a single fuck if someone at the beach on a hot day thinks I should wear something less revealing. As Janelle Monae clapped back at one tweeting moron, “Sit down. I am not for your consumption.”

I’m doing this for me, and for my daughter. I want to feel better – body, mind, and soul. I want to do things I love – eat, write, and run. I want to be around a long time; I have a lot to teach her, and a whole hell of a lot more to say.