October 2, 2008
If 60 is the new 50, why do my hips hurt so bad? Most people think I’m somewhere in my mid-50s, but I’m turning 60 Saturday, Oct. 4. I’m not vain about my looks, but I’d rather look a little younger than a little older. Until this year, I’ve never had any emotional problems turning any other landmark age. Since I turned 30, I’ve always felt better than I did five years ago. Except that this year, I’ve started having aches and pains.
Birthdays don’t really matter. Everybody has one. You just show up at the end and get a standing ovation after everybody else has done all the work. But this birthday, and my 30th, mean something to me far beyond a common, everyday miracle of nature.
I spent most of my 20s battling a severely painful, life-threatening illness. But in October 1978, I felt I was recovering, and that this recovery, unlike all the previous ones, would last. (It did.)
So I gave myself a 30thbirthday party because, for the first time in 10 years, I felt healthy, and that my recovery would have traction this time. I’d been swimming a mile a day all summer in a magnificent man-made reservoir. When God builds a lake, He has unlimited time, resources and creativity. When people build a lake God would be proud of, that’s an accomplishment. This one was like swimming in a 300-acre rain barrel, surrounded by a hardwood forest.
In 1978, I had friends and my first professional job in four years. And that first job was the beginning of my newspaper career. So I gave myself a birthday party. I’m giving myself a 60th birthday party, not to honor the day I was born, but to honor the start of my recovery 30 years ago.
I don’t want to spoil anyone’s good time, especially mine, by talking about how horrible my life was in my 20s. Those years are still a source of pain for me. Often, when I think about them, I start reliving them in my mind, and all the feelings connected with all the horrible things and horrible people that really happened.
I did live for several years with a life-threatening illness and no health insurance, depending on the kindness of strangers, and health care providers who did not care and did not provide. It made me a supporter of universal national health insurance. You can’t tell me health care is a privilege, not a right, or that the United States has the best health care in the world. We have the best health care money can buy. For poor people, our health care system resembles a Third World country. Many times, I was refused specialized treatment because I couldn’t pay. I’d keep getting sicker until someone had to rush me to the hospital, save my life first, and ask questions later.
Israel has better health care than we do, and everybody agrees to pay higher taxes because health care is society’s responsibility, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. They do this in addition to maintaining the best military in the region.
This is what happens when I try to talk about the old days. The pain comes back as if it’s happening now, and I get carried away. Living a nightmare for an extended period of time often does that to people. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which can last much longer than the original trauma.
I’m going to have a birthday party Sunday evening with 30 close family and friends. I hope some get up and tell stories about me that other people don’t know. I believe in the “Art Buchwald Theory.” The brilliant humorist was given about three days to live, and he lasted three months. During that time, writer friends wrote, and friends came to visit, with stories and feelings most people don’t get to hear until their funeral.
Buchwald said, “Why should people have to wait until they’re dead to hear these things. It’s not fair.” He knew what a blessing it was for him to hang on long enough to hear for himself what people thought of him.
I’m not living one day at a time like he was. But on my party invitations, I told people to bring an anecdote instead of a present. Those anecdotes and memories from people I love are the only birthday presents I care about.