Yesterday was my forty second birthday; I spent most of it in solitude, reflecting on my past birthday
celebrations. I thought of the pain my life has brought to me, both physically and mentally, over many
challenging years. I thought of my ninetieth birthday, in particular, as I have on each birthday since that
birthday twenty three years ago. I was a heroin addict, on the brink of total submersion into a dark world of
heavy addiction. My mother met me at a local diner, one we used to go to when I was a little girl. She placed
a single chocolate cupcake with white frosting in front of me. I stared down at a thin green candle, the wax
piling onto the little doily on top of a cream white plate.
My mom then asked me how I wanted my funeral.
She spoke to me through tears, and quietly told me the story of my second birthday. This story was
significant for her to share with me that day because back then, when I was two, she could still fix my pain.
She could comfort me and know that what she was doing was eventually going to make me better. Now she
was sitting across from her detached, drug addicted youngest daughter, and couldn’t fix anything. Her
daughter was still in pain, but it was a different sort. On my second birthday, I broke my leg in several places.
How I broke my leg no one really knows. It was, however, necessary to keep my legs hanging in traction for
thirty long days rather than risk a disability of having one leg shorter than the other. The injury occurred on the only day in my entire life that I was ever left at a daycare center. They told my mom that I tripped out of a sandbox. The doctors claimed it would have been an impossible feat to break the femur bone by tripping on anything.
My life has been comprised of a multitude of episodes of intense physical pain. I have broken many bones, suffered migraines, survived freak accidents, as well as life-threatening illnesses. Along the way, I have acquired not only a tolerance to pain, but also have developed many coping mechanisms to get through that pain. In my forty two years, I have learned to dig deep and find my inner strength, and to stay connected to myself. I am grateful to be able to see and hear that voice in me, when many other voices are muffled by my own insecurities. Today I ran a slow jog in the April rain, feeling the cold against my face. I felt sadness and apprehension from the usual culprits. I drove to the local coffee shop after deciding to go out into the universe and look for a bit for inspiration and gratitude. While ordering coffee I received a call from the nurse from the school where my son attends. She was panicking, reporting that my son, Elijah, had smashed his finger at his play practice. Elijah is in his middle school production of Willy Wonka. He was cast as an Oompa Loompa. The play has required commitment since early October. After weeks and weeks of late night practices, this was the day of the first dress rehearsal. When I arrived at the school I was buzzed in and walked down the long hallway that smelled of hot lunches and sterilization. I saw Elijah and at first was startled at his face, clad in full costume make-up. He was upset, though I wasn’t sure how much was fear-based. To me, his finger didn't look any worse than the many times I had seen my own father smash his fingers with a hammer when I was a kid. Despite Elijah’s sometimes risky circus arts activities, he has been fortunate to come out of the last twelve years of his life unscathed. I often find myself telling my son in the face of minor injuries to toughen up, and then relay my own stories of injury. On the advice of the nurse, we headed to the urgent care office across the street from the school. I tried to decipher what was really going on with Elijah. He smashed his finger so badly that the doctor had to place several small needles into the top of his nail to alleviate the pressure. It was a tough scene as I watched him in intense physical pain. He lay on the examination table wincing, tears streaming down his face. His eyes were glossy and red, swollen with tears. His green eyes were piercing out from behind a face that was a bright orange Oompa Loompa color with white painted eye brows and red lips. As he lay there, I felt him becoming unreachable. At that moment, I saw him as a separate person from me, starting his own journey of life; his own passage into love and the unknown, into places of pain and fear. I felt his hurt deep in my gut, but I had the awareness that it will be worse at many times in his life. I tried to calm him down and remind him that he would be okay. I sensed that fear was making the physical pain so much worse. He tightened up and shut down. So I yelled to him, my face barely hovering an inch from his, looking deep into his frightened little body. I told him to go inside of himself and to find the comfort only he could ever really give himself at this moment, and all the moments to come. He closed his eyes tightly. Sweat beads sat on his upper lip, as he pursed them tightly together. He started to take fast, deep breaths. Then with each exhale, he started to slow his breathing and un-crease his brow. I felt him find his strength without me. Several more minutes went by before the doctor was finished. Elijah made it through and while I may have been standing there above him, he made it through those moments alone.
We left the doctors’ office, exhausted by what had just happened, heading towards the safety of our home. I washed the thick orange paint off of his face. I told him how proud I was of him. He apologized for freaking out. He explained to me how much it hurt, and that he had never felt pain like that before. I sat down close to him, gently touching the side of his face. I told him that no matter what pain came to him and that no matter how bad it hurt physically and mentally, he should never lose sight of himself. I looked deep in his eyes and told him through my own tears that he was so much stronger than he could know. He apologized for this happening on my birthday. I hugged him tightly, and I told him that birthdays are about growth and it was more than clear that we both have grown a year older.