Rethinking Love, Mourning, and Birthdays

Today is my birthday. I am officially 40 years old today, and I am uncertain what to think about it. I have warring opinions on the subject, and memories that tug my heart in opposite directions.

I was not happy to turn 20. I was ending college and starting Medical school, and I don’t remember having any sort of celebration. I felt my twenties looming before me as a long, hard uphill slog up a mountain of training and work. And indeed, I was right. My twenties were rough. So when I turned 30, I was elated! I was so excited to be over any sort of hill. I wanted to rest and enjoy a few of the fruits of all my labor. For a brief span, I did get to do just that, and I had three whole years of peace. However, just after my 33rd birthday, cancer came to pull all my rest out from under me, steal almost everything I had worked for, and teach me that I had no idea what climbing a mountain could be. Now, seven years later, I am feeling as if, perhaps, I might possibly be on the other side of that mountain, but I am reluctant to say so, even to myself. Standing at the door of another decade, I am afraid to project any thoughts or feelings into it.

A part of me is rejoicing! When I think of all the moments I was sincerely terrified that I might never live to see this day, I want to climb on the roof and dance and shout…“Look at me! I’m Forty! I love being Forty! Is there any more amazing gift in the world than to live to be Forty!” But other memories whisper for caution, and a single mere whisper is all I need to dampen and chill my spirits. Other memories of the friends who did not make it to see their own birthdays come to bring tears to my eyes. Memories of other people, ones I had always imagined would be by my side on this day but who are now lost to me, fill my heart with regrets. So, on this day that I would wish to love, I find myself mourning instead. It seems strange, but at least the past few weeks have been preparing me for this strangeness.

The two weeks leading up to this birthday have been an unusual collection of new holidays that I have only chosen to celebrate this year. Esther Day, Tisha B’Av and Tu B’Av are holidays that are just arriving on my schedule in this, my fortieth, August. Esther Day is a holiday about expressing love. Tisha B’Av is the Jewish day for mourning. Tu B’Av is the Jewish holiday of love, and my birthday is the Big 4-0, a day I have been told all my life that a woman should mourn. Love–Mourning–Love–Mourning. These days all seem strangely juxtaposed, and yet it seems in some way fitting that my present to myself this day should be an attempt to make sense of them all.

Esther Day has appealed to me the most. A new holiday honoring the last wish of a teenage girl who died of cancer, Esther’s story has been weighing on my heart for months, pressing me to reevaluate the meaning of the word love.

Before Esther died, a friend asked for her permission to make her birthday into a nationally recognized holiday. Esther could have picked any form of celebration… Shaving-Your-Head-For-Cancer-Awareness, or raising money for charity, or literally anything. Esther, however, decided that she wanted something much simpler and yet infinitely harder. She chose her holiday to be about saying I LOVE YOU to all the people in our lives that are hard to speak those words to. She dreamed of a day to celebrate the relationships that go unrecognized, a day to reach out to those we admire and adore and for whatever reason find ourselves awkward around. In essence, a day to say I LOVE YOU to precisely the people we find it hardest to say.

I am impossibly shy. Esther’s last request calls the impossibly shy to say impossible words to the most impossible of people. It has forced me rethink my entire relationship to the words I LOVE YOU.

I recently lost a friend to cancer to whom I never said I LOVE YOU. I met my cancer buddy about six years ago. She was an amazing person, and yet we had a very complicated relationship. She at times could frustrate and confuse me, because our relationship crossed the many boundaries of my work world. I had a hard time knowing what my role in her life should be, but this friend had a way of smashing past all the barriers of professionalism that my training had taught me to defend. I cared about her in a very personal way, but I found that I always chose my words to her with my professional role in mind. When I knew that she was terminal, I told myself that I needed to see her, but I kept putting the visit off. Day after day I kept thinking that life would toss me a chance, that the opportunity to have one last goodbye-visit would just fall into my lap. I kept thinking that until the day when I was one day too late. Suddenly she was gone; no more chances. Attending the funeral of someone I wished I had said I LOVE YOU to, and realizing that I would never get the chance, was a terrible thing.

I struggle within myself to answer the question… Why did I put off that visit?

One reason is my personal feelings about the words I LOVE YOU. Growing up, my family was very selective about those words, keeping them for family only. I remember saying I LOVE YOU to a friend once and being told, “I don’t think you should say that. Those are powerful words and you are likely to regret them.” I also remember dinner conversations that included the quote, “Well, in my day, a girl didn’t say she loved green beans the same way she said she loved her Savior.” I have always struggled to say I LOVE YOU to friends my age or older, which is odd, because I have no shortage of love for people. I find myself frequently talking about the people I love, saying, “I love so-and-so!” with warmth and enthusiasm behind their back, but when I am face to face with the person, I clam up.

I think part of this struggle is with the English language itself. I was taught in a fundamentalist Christian church to admire Greek, which has four different words for love, agape (unconditional/spiritual), eros (romantic/sensual), philia (friendship/mental), storge (family/natural). It seemed as if the goal of a Christian was to keep these four loves distinct and separate. A good girl would never say the English word “love” in a way that could be misconstrued as eros to a friend who clearly was supposed to be a philia relationship only!

I think, however, that issues with love were only part of why I put that visit off. I think the other reasons were my issues with mourning.

The simplest way that I can explain is to say that my larger family doesn’t tolerate grief. Mourning just isn’t their thing. Having a nice wake or a good potluck is preferred. ‘One good cry and then move on with life’ could easily be their motto. The problem is, this just doesn’t work for me anymore. These days I deal in death. My current job is specialized in caring for the dying. I put people on hospice, take people off life support, and witness on average about five deaths a month. Increasingly, all these dying patients remind me of someone. My cancer buddy was so much a friend that I didn’t want to see her as a patient, because patients die. I think I avoided seeing her face near death because I didn’t want to be seeing it over and over again in the dying faces I care for every day.

Tisha B-Av is all about mourning. The main event Jews mourn is the destruction of the temple, the day when their religion was irrevocably changed and their people were scattered to the wind. The mourning isn’t for the temple alone, though. All the dark, painful events of Jewish history get rolled into this day and observers strive to feel in the depths of their souls the extreme anguish their ancestors would have felt seeing all they held dear destroyed. In this way, Judaism is so vastly different than my Christian background. Jews are commanded to mourn. Every year. They read the scroll of Lamentations which is full of existential questions about the cause and roots of destruction in this world. Why would God allow atrocities to occur? Why? The anguish is real because the answer is not known. Not last year, not this year, and so the day of mourning must continue.

Yet, ironically, the main event being mourned, the destruction of the temple, is what made Judaism the rich, strong religion and culture it is today. When the Hebrew people were scattered without a temple they took their religion into their homes. They turned tragedy into a stronger, more personal, more dynamic faith that has withstood the test of time the way no building ever could. Out of the ashes of destruction, these people made something much more beautiful. Yet despite this turn-around, despite the overwhelming personal triumph, despite the beauty-for-ashes ending, Jews still mourn, because destruction is still destruction, no matter the ending, and destruction deserves mourning.

Yet the mourning does not last forever, and a few days later there comes Tu B’Av, the day of remembering the loving redemption and atonement of the Hebrew people when they were finally ushered into their promised land. It is a day that has come to symbolize the many facets of love, and is equated to Valentine’s Day in Israel. Yet even this day of love is bound up in mourning, for the journey to the promised land began with a forty year journey from slavery through exile. There is no redemption without a destruction to be redeemed from. The Jewish faith acknowledges, one cannot come without the other. After forty years lost in the wilderness, there must have been rejoicing, but also whispering memories of caution. After forty years, it must have felt strange to stand on the edge of a new land. Love and mourning, both on that threshold.

In my twenties I loved many people, each in their own Greek-category sort of way. I loved my husband. I loved my friends. I loved my family. Each type of love separate and distinct in my mind, scripting and limiting all my interactions, hemming me about with internal rules that were stifling. In my thirties I have mourned many people, each loss seeming separate and distinct. I lost a husband. I lost friends. I lost family. They seemed like so many different losses that stacked upon me and threatened to crush me under their weight. Now, at forty, I find my heart saying… Why this separation? It seems, to me, that all these categories no longer matter. What matters is who I have loved and how I have mourned.

All this separation seems dangerous now to me. At forty, I find myself wanting to see others as full complicated human beings beyond categorization, beyond artificial boundaries. At forty, the sort of love I want to speak of seems, ironically, to be the plain old fashioned English word. I want to accept that every relationship I have will be a crazy, unpredictable mash up of agape/eros/philia/storge, and to truly love anyone, in the best of ways, is to embrace every aspect of these feelings in a way that honors the unique humanity of us both. “Love” in all its intricacies. I want to destroy my scripts, to feel multifaceted love, and to speak love without worries of confusion. Because, at forty, I finally realize that love is a powerful word, but the real regrets I have are the times I didn’t say it.

Yet, embracing love means accepting the consequence that mourning will follow love. Some of my love will end up in destruction. I find myself wanting to embrace mourning in a less categorized way as well. I think I need time to mourn all my losses as one singular whole so as not to drown in sea of lost names and faces. To set aside time to mourn the destruction of the temple as a whole in order to make way for redemptive love to come.

In my twenties I struggled with why God would cause destruction. In my thirties I struggled with what I had done to cause destruction. Now, at forty, I find my heart saying…. Who cares about the cause? It seems, to me, that the source of destruction no longer matters. All that matters is what I have done in its aftermath.

The mountains in my life, the many falls, and all the scars… their cause seems no longer important. What matters is what I have done with them. I have made camp on the side of a mountain of suffering and loss and, in the dark of lonely nights there, I have seen stars that safe city-dwellers could never imagine. I have risen in weakness after sleepless nights to be pushed to climb ever dizzying heights, and learned, with each step, my own strength. In falling, I have dropped most of the useless cares and worries that burden those who walk a flat easy path. The more marks I collect in my flesh the less regrets I carry, for I have poured hope and acceptance upon my scars, and they have become beautiful.

When I was first diagnosed, I deeply resented post-five-year survivors who smilingly said God had made everything for a purpose and cancer was the best thing that had happened to them. Such talk seemed trite and unfeeling. I doubted that they would have been talking so on their own death beds if the cancer had killed them. So I wish to say this cautiously and with great respect for the burdens others carry… my life as it is today is far better than it would have been on my previous path. I do not believe this was divine purpose. Cancer is not a gift or a curse, not a blessing or a punishment. Cancer is cancer, an indiscriminate cellular reaction to bad genetics and worse environment. I do not choose, even cheerfully, to blame cancer on God. I merely choose to blame myself for what I did with mine. I worked very, very hard, and I made something better of my life after cancer than I ever would have had without it. Out of the ashes of destruction, I made something beautiful. I am grateful for the miracles of family and friendship, education and opportunity, that gave me the tools, time, and abilities for this exhausting, all-consuming work. Yet, I must own the craftsmanship myself. This messy life is my creation, and at forty I am proud to sign my name to it.

Now I find myself sharing kinship with those others who have walked a rough road. Lives that have fit the normal, predictable pattern seem uninteresting. I appreciate the beauty of graying heads, laugh lines, war wounds and tales of spectacular failure from the fellow climbers around me. I wish to draw close to those who choose to embrace love but know that mourning is still important and who sign their names to a messy life with gratitude.

So, on this birth-day that matters only to me, I find myself hand in hand with love and mourning. Sandwiched between these seeming opposites, I feel as if I do not want to choose. As if in the midst of the counterbalance of their separate tugs, I somehow feel more content than ever before. I am proud of all I have learned about each of these curious friends, and my heart seems to be longing for nothing more than a deeper knowledge of both. My hands seem to be pulling them towards me, closer and closer together, to wrap their arms around me and become, hopefully some day, one in the same.

I find myself asking only one gift of the universe. “Ayeka Adonai, Teach me to love.” I think I might finally be old enough to learn.

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