If you know me, you know I typically love to celebrate my own birthday. I like to take the day off from work, treat myself to chocolate croissants and espresso for breakfast and let the rest of my doings emerge naturally, in accordance with my whims. Museum? Writing? Nap? Lovely. Delicious dinner with my spouse? Yes. Are my children invited? Maybe.
This year was a little different. First, I didn’t take the day off because I teach once a week and this was a teaching day. And I’m glad I didn’t because my students brought whoopie pies and sparkling cider because they are just the loveliest people.
Loveliest outside of my own dear family, of course, who also feted me lovingly with eggs for breakfast, gifts and a yum meal at the new Taiwanese bistro in our neighborhood.
It was all very…quiet. And by design. I have not been looking forward to turning 46. It’s not because of the increased profusion of grey hair at my temples or the two deepening vertical lines between my eyes that my children call my “elevens.” That’s all fine. I actually rather like the way I look here in middle age. I feel more comfortable with myself than I ever have in many ways.
It’s none of that. It’s simple: I am now the age my father was when he died. 46 years was all he got. It was not enough for him and it’s not enough for me.
I’m not really a superstitious person, but I will admit to feeling an illogical terror every time I get a weird pain in my head. Is it genetic? Is my brain also going to give up young? Am I going to leave my kids without their mother?
I know two things: 1) Any person who loses a parent at a young age from something unexpected and medical will carry such a terror, and 2) such terror is not solely the province of people who lose their parents at a young age.
Mortality. It sure comes clearer every year.
The other thing I typically do to celebrate my birthday is ponder forever over the purchase of some Special Thing. A piece of jewelry or a kick ass pair of boots. This year I pondered harder than usual and here is what I came up with:
According to the journals I kept in my mid-twenties, I have wanted an iris on my body for at least that long. They have always been my favorite flower. I carried Siberian irises at my wedding. I named my cat Iris.
And during my twenties, one book of poetry, The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück, sat with me quietly, steadfastly, through the grief of losing my father and the deep disappointment of my first marriage’s demise.
The Wild Iris
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
So, twenty years later, finally: an iris to mark this emotionally fraught year.
Grief, yes, but still growing and gorgeous, too.
His last, but not (I will myself to believe) mine.