Happy Birthday, We Are All Going To Die
On my 35th birthday, I was certain I was going to die.
The week before, I’d visited my gynecologist for my annual exam. No big deal. Strip, spread ’em, over and done.
A few days later, my doctor called me. “I have the results of your exam,” she said.
“All good, I presume?” Of course it would be all good. Every exam I’d had since I was a teenager had been all good.
“Well, there’s an abnormality.”
“What do you mean? Like, you found something bad?”
“It’s probably nothing, but I’d like you to come back in for a biopsy. The sooner the better. How’s tomorrow morning?”
I didn’t sleep that night. I thought about the ways my body had mysteriously betrayed me in the last few years. When I had vertigo for the first time in my life, and I was in bed for a week, the world spinning around me.
The night my best friend rushed me to the ER because I had an allergic reaction to … nothing. My face got so red and puffy I could barely see, and then my throat started to close up. They gave me a shot of something and sent me home a few hours later when the swelling had gone down. No, I wasn’t allergic to anything. No, I hadn’t eaten anything unusual. Must be stress, the doctor said with a shrug.
My once-like-clockwork period had become irregular and unpredictable and more painful than usual. My doctor said that was a normal part of aging (gee, thanks, doc) and put me on birth control so I could skip the whole damned thing altogether. I was too stressed, she said. That was probably affecting my period too. Everything else was fine, all parts in working order, no breast lumps, clean as a whistle.
But maybe something was wrong. Maybe she’d missed it. Maybe that’s why my body didn’t respond to the birth control, why my periods grew even worse. Maybe all of these physical anomalies meant my body really was betraying me, and this now was the ultimate betrayal, the attack from the inside that would definitively deny me any chance at motherhood. Not that I wanted that anymore. Once, I’d had a plan — yes, an actual PowerPoint plan, complete with silly sound effects and sillier clip art — for my life. The ring my boyfriend would give me, the wedding, the house we’d buy, one baby, then another, perfectly spaced apart — all by the time I was thirty-five, because I’d read countless articles about the increased pregnancy risks after thirty-five.
The plan had long since become non-operational. When I left my husband because I thought he didn’t love me anymore, and he told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to fight to keep me. When he killed himself a year later, and any hope, however small, of reconciliation and our clip art happily-ever-after was destroyed and burned to ashes I keep in a little plastic box in the closet, the sticky label with his name and birth and death dates typed in plain font. I’d long stopped wanting those things I’d once wanted with him, when my life was different, when I had a plan. Now there was no plan, no husband, no children, and I was turning 35 the next day and having a biopsy instead of a baby, and I was going to die of cancer, probably. Alone.
I drove to my doctor’s office early that morning. I ignored all the phone calls from my family wishing me a happy birthday. The procedure took only a few minutes. I lay on the table, legs once again spread open, trying to ignore the snide voice in my head that kept saying, “A biopsy instead of a baby.”
The voice in my head can be a real bitch sometimes.
“So how soon will you have the results?” I asked my doctor.
“It should only take a few days, but I’m actually leaving on Friday for Spain. My daughter’s giving a speech, and we’re going to travel the country and –”
“How long will you be gone?”
“I’ll be back in two weeks. I’ll call you with the results as soon as I’m back.”
“So you’re going to make me wait two weeks to find out if I have cancer?”
“I’m sure you’re fine,” she said.
On my way home, I stopped at my local market and bought milk, vodka — organic, which makes it healthy, right? — and Kahlua. If I was going to spend my 35th birthday worrying about my imminent demise, I certainly wasn’t going to do it sober. At home, I poured myself my favorite comfort cocktail: a White Russian in a pint glass. I climbed into bed with my drink, and tortured myself with worst-case scenarios. What if I really did have cancer? What if I was too sick to work? How would I pay my rent? Who would hold back my hair when I threw up from poisonous treatments? Sweet Jesus, what if I had to move in with my mother?
I lost track of the drinks I’d had sometime in the mid-afternoon, when the sun had turned my little house into a perfect oven, and I was braising in my own vodka-infused sweat and couldn’t be bothered to open the windows. I heard pounding, and figured it was my head, but then I heard my best friend’s voice.
“Come on, let me in. You don’t get to ignore me on your birthday.” I stumbled to the door to let her in.
“Jesus, you stink. Are you drunk?”
“Very,” I said.
“You’ve been ignoring my calls all day.”
“You know I don’t like talking to people on my birthday.”
“I’m not people,” she said. “I’m me. What’s going on with you?”
“I’m thirty-five,” I said.
“I don’t have a baby.”
“I’m dying of cancer.”
She stared at me. “The fuck?”
“I had a biopsy this morning.”
“You what? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to worry you.”
“So you decided to just worry by yourself? What the hell? I would have worried with you. And I would have gone with you so you didn’t have to be alone.”
“I’m going to die alone anyway.”
“You’re not going to die,” she said.
“You don’t know that. I might have cancer. I probably have cancer. That’s what I get for making a goddamned PowerPoint for my life. Now I have none of it, and I’m going to die. And I’m alone, and no one’s going to take care of me.”
“You’re not going to die,” she said again. “And you’re not alone. You have me. You think I wouldn’t take care of you if you had cancer? You think I wouldn’t move you into my house and take you to doctor appointments? I’m your person, damnit.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” I said it and part of me knew it was true — of course she’d take care of me if I was sick — but I was too busy drunkeningly wallowing in self-pity to take comfort in that.
“When do you get the results?” she asked.
“Not for two weeks. My cunt doctor’s going to Spain, and I won’t hear anything until she gets back. Can you believe that? She calls me in to her office to see if I have cancer and then leaves the country.”
“Well, I’m not going to leave you alone on your birthday. Not like this. Get your shoes. You can be drunk and depressed at my house.”
I spent the next two weeks rejecting all rational thought. It didn’t matter that I was young and healthy. It didn’t matter that plenty of women have abnormal gyno exams, and it means nothing. It didn’t matter that my doctor said she was sure it was nothing. How could she really know? My vagina didn’t have that yup-it’s-cancer look to her?
I imagined having a hysterectomy, my last ever-dwindling hope of being a mother one day surgically removed from me. I brushed my hair and pictured it coming out in clumps like in the movies. Every morning, I woke up and thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to die.”
My doctor called when she returned from her vacation. “Everything’s fine,” she said.
“I’m not dying of cancer?”
She laughed. She laughed. “No, there’s nothing wrong with you. The initial results were an anomaly. It happens sometimes.”
“Is there anything I need to do?” I asked. “You know, to make sure I — ” I what? Don’t get vag cancer?
“Take care of your health,” she said. “And try to reduce the stress in your life. You’re far too stressed. That’s probably what caused the abnormal result.”
Oh. Is that all?
“Have you tried macrobiotics? That might help.”
“Uh, yeah. I’ll look into that.” Cunt.
I should have been relieved. Hooray, I’m not dying of cancer! And yet … it didn’t feel like a reprieve. At least if I’d been dying of cancer, I wouldn’t have to worry about what comes next. I could give up on creating the PowerPoint 2.0 for my life. I could give in to the illness inside my body, make sure my friend would take care of my cat when I was gone, and I’d be done with the whole torturous process of reinventing myself and finding new dreams. It would be over. I’d be done. I’d be free. Cancer was going to be my easy out, and now I didn’t even have that.
Today, It’s my thirty-sixth birthday. My best friend are on our annual week-long vacation at Stinson Beach, where we drink and play games and lay in the sun and eat and read and drink some more.
It’s better now, I guess. After spiraling into a depression because of my wasted life, my empty womb, my fear that I was dying, and then my disappointment that I wasn’t, I figured it was time to drag myself back into therapy. I found a psychiatrist to prescribe me the recommended happy pills, and I had the good sense to schedule my annual exam with my new gynecologist for the week after my birthday. Just in case.
Still no baby. Still no plan. But this year, I’m spending my birthday with my favorite person in my favorite place. There will be books. And booze. And bikinis. It’s better than a biopsy.
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