Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and never leave. Our lives are measured by these.
~ Susan B Anthony, 1820-1906
I dread birthdays. It’s not the passage of time or the lines on my face or everything slowly shifting south. And I understand that birthdays are important to others. I simply don’t like fuss on mine and no longer pretend otherwise.
My 40th was the first I spent alone – in the Arizona desert thirty miles from the nearest town. Taking a year-long sabbatical I returned to the States to reconnect with family ghosts. The ghouls decided this was a good time to take a trip to North Dakota for a week. Or six. They left me in the middle of nowhere with a dog and a .22 caliber pistol for protection against rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and drug runners. The main flaw in that plan was that I don’t know how to shoot a gun beyond point, pull and hope.
They were still away when the big 4-O arrived but it didn’t matter. The dog and I pottered and I grilled two thick steaks for our dinner. It was a great day.
After that, I stopped pretending that birthdays were fantastic events. Close friends respect this and leave me to my devices – only sneaking in a text or a card. I lie to everyone else. There was a time when I’d take myself on holiday but lately it’s been a revolving door of treatment and recovery so I stayed home. The exception was my 47th – spent at hospital having ABVD poison pumped into my veins. My nurse noticed and surprised me with a celebratory blueberry muffin to mark the occasion. A simple, kind and compassionate gesture that still brings tears to my eyes.
My 50th arrived and I’m again in treatment. I considered organising something big but the thought was overwhelming. And out of character. I wanted time to escape, time to pretend that life was normal and my future secure. Fool myself just that little while longer. I knew it would be my last chance before the disaster took over again.
Deciding to spend the day in the spirit of my 40th I packed a lunch, donned a big floppy hat and caught a bus. An hour found me meandering through a wood with its lush new-green canopy overhead. I found a gnarled and ancient tree a distance from the path, spread out a blanket, sat and listened. Listened to the birdsong, and the wind through the trees, and the rustle of some unseen creature to my right. A hot day, I felt the soft breeze cool my cheek and neck with a gentle caress. I pushed aside the leaf litter to watch strange insects go about their daily routines. I felt at peace and unafraid for the first time in months. I stayed like that – watching, listening – I don’t know how long. Eventually, I sat up and pulled old friends out of my bag.
I may be anti-celebration but I have quiet traditions. One is that in milestone years – the big O’s – I visit the poets and writers I’ve cherished for much of my life. I reread Tolkien and the adventures that I fell in love with age six. I stop by Poe’s disturbing tales – my favourite at age ten. I visit Hamlet, The Handmaiden’s Tale, Carver’s short stories and others, seeing new depth and meaning in each.
It was the poets’ turn and I pulled out my shabby, handwritten notebook. Many have been a part of me since childhood when my understanding of the world was limited. The days when Eldorado was about a Quixote-like adventurer. But each time we meet they have new things to say.
I open the notebook to the first poem I can remember encountering. I was eight when I found the newspaper clipping in my mother’s wallet – folded again and again and stuck between photographs of her parents and my sister. It begins…
I was too young to comprehend the words and asked my mother what they meant. After scolding me for nosing around her purse, she tried to explain death. She said she found the poem in the local paper around the time my grandmother died and it was the way she wanted to remember her. I never forgot those words so as I look down to read, the faded ink and illegible handwriting doesn’t matter. My eyes sting.
I pause at a poem I memorised age nine. We were studying Emily Dickenson at school and had to recite one of her poems on parents’ day. Most of my classmates recited her more famous I’m Nobody! Who are you? I chose ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers. I don’t remember why, perhaps I wanted to be different, but the words remained with me all these years. My eyes sting. It’s difficult to keep that little bird alive these days.
Eldorado and The Road Not Taken entered my life age twelve. The 1970’s Texas education system held inter-school competitions in all kinds of strange fields. My junior-high was so small that every student had to compete in something and I picked poetry recitation. I didn’t win – I got one of those ‘participation’ ribbons – but The Road Not Taken influenced the rest of my life.
I flip through and realise that some of my friends have nothing more to say – like people that enter your life, important for a day or a year or a decade, and then fade away. Burns, Plath, Rossetti, Yeats all seem like casual acquaintances. We speak and struggle to connect. Turning away we promise to meet again, knowing it’s a lie.
The next stop is a group of poems by Mary Oliver. I had just moved to London and was taking a literature course when I discovered her poignant observations. On the final page is The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. We were introduced in my 39th year during what I can only describe as a mid-life crisis. Her words inspired me to make that trip to the Arizona desert for my 40th.
Turning back to The Road Not Taken, beloved for forty years, I realise I never understood its true message. In the past, it spoke to me of possibility, free will and choice. Of taking the obscure path and that making the difference in some wonderful way.
I was wrong. It now speaks to me of the impossible combination of choice and chance. Of equal paths, uncertain outcomes, limited foresight and no return. Words of second-guessing and sighs of regret. My eyes sting.
This dialogue is uncomfortable. At a crossroad with hard choices, I’m paralysed. I must move forward and soon before events overtake me. I can’t stand in the woods forever uncertain of which path to take.
My thoughts are interrupted by an escaped puppy. Bounding with its tail wagging its body, it embraces me in excited greeting. Soft blonde fur, open warmth and gleeful as it steals my sandwich before being leashed, scolded and pulled away.
I pack my things and remember that my friends and I probably won’t meet like this again – that another big O is unlikely. My eyes sting. As I turn onto the well-worn path I recall The Summer Day…in farewell.