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  • Julie Humphreys

Happy Birthday to Me

So, I had a big birthday.

I remember the week leading up to 30, and I felt like I needed to cram a lifetime of achievement in one week.

I also remember 40, 25, 21, and 16. 16 I remember fancy mullets, pink knit sweaters, acid wash jeans, and oversized jean jackets. My brother from another mother was the DJ. A brisk September night when everyone is still happy about the cooler temps. I remember the adults there. I remember the kids there. That was a good night, a fun night.

This year, during the week leading up to 50, I felt “weird.” I was holding my breath, waiting to believe it was true- that I was here and ready to celebrate- that I had made it to 50, as happy and fortunate as I am. Some people don’t give a hoot about birthdays. I think they are significant. Birthdays offer a chance for honest personal reflection and reassessment in a meaningful, unique way. It’s all about you on that one day. The planets aligned as they did, and you were born perfect. But for some reason, I was holding my breath.

When my husband turned 50, I surprised him with a trip to Paris. I think he felt like he needed to keep up with that expectation for me.

But when you live through the experience of your whole life being turned upside down, and everything you’ve ever wanted and known is threatened to be taken away forever, something shifts. Paris didn’t matter. And this year, for maybe the first time in my life, I didn't want to jump on a plane and head off to a mystery destination. I wanted to feel through this big reflective event of turning 50. I just had to remember to breathe.

My 40th birthday was just my husband and I and our oldest, who was a baby at the time. We were living in California. We knew no one. My husband worked like a dog for many hours, building his tech career. And our resources were “limited” to say the very least. But somehow, he found the resources and took me to the Top of the Mark in San Francisco for dinner; afterward, we followed the footsteps and cigarette ashes of the beat poets and writers. We had a beer where Jack Kerouac did. I bought a mini book of poetry from Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a kid’s book called The Insomniacs for my baby, who was fast asleep in our apartment with the thin walls and tiny stove. My husband surprised me with a black hoodie that said City Lights Bookstore on it. I still wear it. It was the most time we had spent together since we moved there that summer.

That was a decade ago. That word “decade” leaves a trail of something behind it. I can’t quite figure out what it is. But It’s like I’ve reached Relic status, or I should be coming down the mountain after five decades and sharing my visions with the community. Ha! (Ironically, that was a past life experience for me, so maybe that’s not strange after all).

This year, I just wanted to be home.

I am no longer surprised when I look at my kids (getting along & laughing, not playing antagonist and victim), and my eyes swell with tears that come from my heart, full of love and awe. My husband and I intentionally built our family based on love, respect, and honesty. It’s also evolved into complete adoration for one another.

I sometimes lose my breath when I look at my kids, and the feeling comes back that this scenario may not have happened at all; this happy scenario of my kids thriving and living a great life was under siege. It was only 17 months ago that I would look at my kids and hold back different tears because I didn’t know if they would grow up with their dad, their beloved “papa.”

I had more questions than answers. My whole world and foundation of all that I loved and cherished and felt safe in was shattered. Cancer does that. My husband's stage IV diagnosis and prognosis suggested he wouldn’t celebrate my 50thbirthday with me. It suggested that I would be a widow at 50. It suggested that he wouldn’t have the chance to experience them through their ups and downs, such as their first heartbreak, graduations, weddings… That was one of the hardest parts of dealing with cancer; wondering what it would be like for my kids not to have their dad from such a young age. How would it inform their relationships and their life choices?

I had to really lean into the notion that there is no future or past; there’s only the now. That was the only way I could get through those days where I could feel my soul grieving for the most loved little humans in my life. Days that my insides felt like lead. Days of calling lawyers, sorting out wills, powers of attorney, beneficiaries, and life insurance. Days where instead of asking what’s for dinner, I was asking, Where are all the passwords? Whom do I need to contact at your company if things head south quicker than we thought? How do the kids get to say goodbye to you? How do you want to be buried, memorialized, and remembered?

“Just now, just today,” I would remind myself. That’s all one can do. I couldn’t take the experience of fear and anxiety and worry about losing their dad away from my kids during that time either. I could try to reassure them, but every time they asked if papa was going to die, what was I supposed to say? How was I supposed to respond to my kids when they asked if I would get remarried if papa died? How was I supposed to temper their anger when he couldn’t get out of bed after treatments? They came into this life, this incarnation, to experience this stuff. I don't need to ask why anymore because that’s a whole other rabbit hole of a book I’m not quite ready to write yet.

And what about me? Was I meant to live this life raising my kids alone, missing that piece of our family foundation? There is no one like my husband. Did I need to prepare myself to live with an ache in my heart that he could never be replaced?

So, no, for my birthday celebration this year, I didn’t want to jump on a plane and get out of Dodge, as would be my usual response for any celebration. I mean, I would do that on National Dog Day. Instead, I wanted to be around those I loved and treasure, including my fur baby (who is currently howling like a wolf and very distracting!). I didn’t want “mama alone time” or jetlag or new walking boots to explore another new place. I opted for alone time with my beloved, a celebration over a meal with old friends, and an afternoon of more good food with my kids and lounging with them, watching National Geographic on the TV up until it was time to finish homework, make lunches, get ready for the week, etc...… The lovely mundane tasks of the day that need to be put into motion. How lucky for me that I got to do that, to be with my husband taking care of our kids (despite him telling me to get back on the couch because it was my birthday, which has a built-in no chores, no cooking clause in our house!) How lucky for me that people took time out of their lives; some were traveling over an hour to share a meal with me and laugh. How fortunate for me that I am so blessed. I fall to my knees in gratitude.

So being on this planet for five decades has had its share of dark days and, thankfully, more days filled with light. My husband’s health has improved dramatically; today, we celebrate that. Life will never be the same as with so many milestones and experiences. And it shouldn't be. We need to take the lessons from one part of our path and carry them forward as we move forward in a new, different, unknown direction. Leave behind the gunk; take the gold, just for today.

Thanks for listening.

Love,

Julie.

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