I celebrated my 48th birthday last week. By all rights, it should have been a miserable, lonely day. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I are getting along okay, but it is less than ideal. I could have just written off the day as a bust, but fortunately with my new Buddhist practice, I am finding that perception is everything.
Knowing that I would not receive flowers, I bought myself a dozen multicolor roses. (And flowers teach impermanence. All things fade and die and there is beauty in every stage.) I also scheduled a full day for myself, beginning with a trip to the local day spa and ending with a chick flick with a friend, and in between, breakfast with my son, Jack, lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant and my annual GYN exam. No this last appointment was not my ideal birthday activity, but my doctor had an opening and I figured I might as well get it over with since I was taking the day off anyway.
So the day is going along nicely. I'm all relaxed from my facial, happy from my time with my son and sated by cheese dip, and it's on to my GYN appointment.
In record time, I'm called back to the exam room. This is great! I might even have time to do a little birthday shopping before the movie. I skim past all the pregnant women and strike up a lively conversation with the nurse, who, as it turns out, is about my age and recently divorced and happy. The doctor arrives and I disrobe and now we're ready to get down to business. She begins performing the routine examine, starting with my breasts. And. Then. She. Stops. And says, "Have we noted this lump before?"
The world stops spinning on its silver axis. What’s that? Come again?
She digs through the charts, but I know we have not recorded a pea-sized lump in my left breast since I’ve been coming to this practice. I had a benign, fibrous cyst ten years ago, and I tell the doctor (and myself) that this is what The Lump must be. The doctor smiles and says she wants me to get a sonogram and a mammogram today. She efficiently, and without alarm, strides down the hall to radiology and orders the tests. Obedient, I follow her down the hall, and take a seat to watch happy couples parade past to find out the sexes of their unborn children. I wait. I flip through a magazine, but, of course, the women's titles are filled with breast cancer survivor stories, and I really don't want to ingest that, so I close my eyes and try to meditate.
For the next hour of my life I think about The Lump. I am faced, quite literally, with the inevitable. In truth, we all are walking around like ticking time bombs prone for some medical crisis, and there is a great argument for ignorance being bliss. My bliss has been greatly disturbed. It’s my f----g birthday! I’m getting divorced. I have a young son. Most of my girlfriends live in far-flung cities. And I'm a freelance writer without a real job.
I put down the magazines and close my eyes and let my mind reel through the possibilities. Among the alarm and panic, two definitive thoughts emerge: 1) I know that, should I succumb to cancer, I do not want to try to patch up my marriage, nor will I depend upon my ex-husband to take care of me—although I suspect that he would do it out of pity—he's a nice guy when he's not loathing me for leaving him; and 2) I am pissed because I just became inspired to write and, hopefully, become a reporter for NPR and I now I'm not going to get to do all that because I'll be too sick and weak from chemo—or worse.
And then the realization quietly settles in: Even faced with adversity, I must absolutely continue on. Despite the backwards way I arrived here, I am on the right path! That is huge, and very good to know on one’s birthday when all things are in do-over mode.
An hour later, by the time I am called back for the sonogram, I am calm. I am determined that no matter the outcome, I will be okay and I will find a way to stay the course. I disrobe and lay down on the table. To ease the tension, I joke with the sonographer, asking her let me know if The Lump is a boy or a girl. (She laughs.) I hold my breath while the she expertly scans the area of my breast and declares The Lump is indeed a cyst and is not solid or cancerous! She advises me to cut down on my caffeine intake. I kiss her. (On the cheek.) And before I know it, I am back on my path, driving to the cinema to to meet my friend for a matinee of Love and Other Drugs, which is awful, and confirms my suspicion that good writers are indeed hard to find, so maybe my talents will find a place.
So, it was a great birthday, perhaps the best birthday I've ever had, and finding that clarity in a most-unlikely circumstance was truly the icing on the cake that I did not have. Bertolt Brecht has a more profound summation to my tale: Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.