Celebrating Life

The story of my almost-death-day will continue later. Today, I want to celebrate life. You see, today is my 31st birthday.

I celebrate my own birthday every year, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. I think I read on a cheesy card once: "Life should not just be lived. It should be celebrated." I thought everybody did this.

When I turned 22, I organized my own “Totally 80s” house party, complete with a Pac-Man cake & cheap, colorful wayfarers for my guests. I spent the night of my 25th birthday at an extravagant restaurant in Atlanta, with a group of first-year medical students (then, strangers; now, best friends). I learned about Stylish Buckhead, and tried Waffle House waffles for the first time in my life. For my 27th birthday, I bought myself a very large lime green cake and rented out a party space in Western Arkansas. Fifty people joined me. It was the party of all parties-- fully equipped with an open bar, lots of delicious appetizers, and slices of lime green goodness for dessert. I had even invited my Rural Medicine attendings to join me. We danced. We laughed. It was a good night.

Last year, for my 30th, my boyfriend & I spontaneously took a trip to Las Vegas for one night. Our plane landed in the city at midnight. By 1:30am, we found ourselves in the VIP Section of some crowded, sweaty club listening to what kids call "House Music" these days. I spent $20 on a slot machine at approximately 3:30am at The MGM Grand Hotel— slightly inebriated, but absolutely happy. 

This year, I can’t go out to a fancy restaurant in Nashville to blow out candles, nor can I roam the colorful streets of Barcelona with friends while signing Happy Birthday to myself. Why? I’m only 2 weeks post-transplant surgery (“It’s flu season! You’re immunocompromised!” they say). But I don’t need to. I will still celebrate life.

Today, the water that I’m drinking is so pure, so clear. So delicious. I feel every drop slowly trickling down my esophagus, and I can swallow with ease. My mouth is satisfied. You see, there’s something delectable about being able to freely moisten your throat with ice cold water after being strapped down in two-point restraints, unable to clear your own secretions while forcibly breathing on the ventilator machine (twice). 

The view I’m looking at of these lovely, busy streets is phenomenal. The dark clouds overlooking the horizon, the cityscape, the flurries. I’ll be walking alongside you and your Toynbee Tiles shortly, Philadelphia. You see, there’s something sweet about even being able to look outside to gaze at something *other* than the hospital plumbing system. Liberty 1, Liberty 2, especially at dusk— I see you and I love you.

And how about those piercing, loud city sounds? To the old man who plays the same rhythmic patterns on his saxophone down my block every single night— I adore you! Wake me up at midnight, like you always used to. I was just trying to sleep soundly after those evening shifts in the ER, but I was never mad at you. Play it louder. You see, there’s something wonderful about the little sounds that you are used to, no matter where you live. The ones that don’t consist of the BEEPs, the BOOPs, and the ANESTHESIA STAT TO THE FOURTH FLOORs.

Today, I am surrounded by my family members— I’m so thankful for the ties that bind that I want to scream! Backstory? My mother has selflessly moved her life to Philadelphia for the time being to help me check my blood sugar level every morning (even though I could do it myself, MOM). 

On Friday, she heard me cry for the first time in years. I couldn’t sleep. Everything was hurting. I had stinging muscle cramps in my legs from becoming so deconditioned on that hospital bed (I was jogging every day just a month ago, MOM). There was an unbearable, raw pain in my chest from the sternotomy-- it worsened with every wincing cry & every breath I tried to take in between (Go to sleep because I’m fine, MOM). She sat next to me for two hours, slowly massaging my legs without saying a word. She let me cry. You see, there’s something special about having your mother there next to you, holding you, during those late nights when you had otherwise become accustomed to feeling cold monitor leads and wires stuck to your chest wall. The only thing you felt on those nights was the artificial touch of the blood pressure cuff clinging to your right arm, cycling itself every half-hour & reminding you of how critical your condition truly was.

Today, I honor the little things in life, and I urge you to do the same. I was never one to take advantage of these moments. But today, they complete me. You see, there’s something celebratory about being able to live after coming almost face-to-face with your own death, multiple times, in a 30-day-period.

Thank you for completing me, Everything Around Me. And thank you, My Organ Donor, for letting me continue celebrating my life.

To end this post, another one from the great Oliver Sacks, from his opinion article “My Own Life” in The New York Times. I recommend reading the whole piece here … because it will change your life.

...My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.