Today, I turned 39 after several days of celebrations with my most beloved people. My husband and I marked the occasion early because he has Wednesdays and Thursdays off. Wednesday morning started with a candle in a danish from my favorite French bakery, flowers, and thoughtful, sweet gifts. Later, we went to dinner at a beloved old restaurant that is like going back to the 1990s; the food, the décor, all of it is dated in a charming and comforting way. On Thursday night, we went to the zoo for an adults-only event. I hadn’t been to the zoo in almost 20 years, and seeing it without screaming kids was such a pleasure, though the trade-off came with several too-drunk adults.
Yesterday, I was surprised by flowers sent from my brother Patrick, hugs from North Carolina. Soon after, the sunny skies darkened, and I comforted my dogs during a fierce thunderstorm that made the windows tremble in their frames. It slowed the morning to nothing, the rain eventually lulling them into calming so I could finish making dinner for a dear friend who shares the same birthday. We have celebrated together as two very different versions of ourselves; the 20-something us in bars, up late until we fell where we stood, and now as we circle around 40 with a relaxing meal and an early night, no apologies to the girls we once were.
This morning, I walked around a lake in the fog, enjoying the cool gray anonymity of it, thinking about birthdays. My grandmother quit smoking the day I was born, just like that, so this is an anniversary for her, too. I thought about birthdays past, the ones of my childhood, when we were allowed to choose what was for dinner and could count on a delicious, beautifully decorated chocolate cake from our mom. I thought about big birthdays, like turning 16 and 21, how great the expectations and resulting disappointments, how much there still was to understand. And I thought about this birthday, the first one with multiple sclerosis, how wonderful it has been anyway.
Birthdays force reflection, and though I don’t know what is to come in the year ahead, the changes that took place this year—both good and bad—have been significant. Of course, last year I didn’t have MS, or at least I didn’t know it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a better time. After throwing my back out badly last summer, I realized I couldn’t go any longer without a primary care provider, so last August, I finally forced myself to go to a doctor for a checkup. That may not sound like a big deal, but I was so terrified after bad experiences in the past, I’d avoided it for more than 12 years, going to urgent care when I needed things like antibiotics. Referred by my sister, who shares the same kind of anxiety when it comes to doctors, I went to see her PA, a friendly and understanding woman whom I trusted immediately. She moved to a practice 45 minutes away soon after that visit, and I happily followed her.
After that first appointment, I got serious about taking better care of myself. I’m 15% lighter this birthday than I was on my last. I think that number would be higher if MS hadn’t thrown a wrench in the works, but I don’t worry about that anymore, just keep pushing forward. MS aside, I’m healthier turning 39 than I was turning 38 or many of the ages before that. One thing MS or another chronic disease will do to a person is make them tackle their fear of doctors. Now, when I’m told to put on a gown or scrubs, I do so without the panic attack I once would have had. It has helped me get over myself, just in time for middle age.
After my walk this morning, I went to breakfast with my best friend. Over coffee and pancakes, we talked and laughed before going home to visit with her girls, who call me “Auntie Erin” and bring such joy to my world. Her parents sweetly remembered me with gifts from their garden. This afternoon, I went to my parents’ house for more celebrating. My mom made a dinner of my favorite things, and my sister, brother-in-law, and my nieces visited. Abby made a great card that declared me fabulous—no arguments there—and they brought more flowers, so my house is full of cheerful blooms.
It was everything I wanted. More than that. Today, I’m 39, heart brimming from a birthday week of love, grateful for all of it.