Birthdays Are Bittersweet
Most people hate the attention birthdays bring. I get it. It’s only in recent years that the meaning of birthdays has shifted for me.
Prior to my double-lung transplant three years ago, every year of life felt like a feat. Now, every birthday is icing on the cake — literally.
It was hard growing up with a statistic stamped on my forehead. My parents were told I wouldn’t live past adolescence. With each new medical advancement, that number changed: 5, 10, 13, 18, 27, 30 … I often wondered if I would drop dead as soon as I met those milestones.
This is where the mind goes when all the odds are stacked against you — at least, it’s where mine went. Statistics never applied to me, though. Continually beating the odds felt like some form of mystical badassery. But it never changed the fact that I felt like a ticking time bomb.
I used to dread my birthday. It meant I was one year closer to the average age at which people with cystic fibrosis die. Getting older wasn’t exciting; it was terrifying. The anxiety was overwhelming when life expectancy taunted me at every corner.
I never got to partake in the façade that “getting older” is the worst. It seems like a societal trend to curse growing old. Everyone talks about midlife crises or how miserable it is to have gray hair, aches and pains, and wrinkles.
For the first time in my life, I’m excited. I want to live long enough to have gray hair. I rejoice in aches and pains because they remind me I’m alive. Wrinkles make me smile. I want to feel the pains of growing old rather than just the pain of living in a broken body.
My birthday is a few days before Christmas, and I can feel the emotions rising. It feels as if the dam is about to break and the floodgates will open, revealing unconscious, pent-up emotion. This is where the tension resides.
I’m celebrating another year of being alive, and I’m nervous about adding another year to the calendar. The feelings fluctuate between solemnity and contentment. I’m between bursting into tears and laughter, and reflecting on the tragedies and rejoicing in the triumphs. It’s quite a bittersweet experience.
My perspective on birthdays has definitely shifted since my transplant. I don’t necessarily feel like I am walking on thin ice. My toes aren’t testing the ice to see if it’s safe to see another birthday. Death no longer feels as imminent.
However, my anxiety continues to bubble over when thinking about the distant future. “Planning” for my 40s or 50s isn’t trepidation-free — yet. I still feel that overarching doom wondering if that will happen, no matter how much I believe in my life.
Perhaps it’s the way I’ve been conditioned, constantly having it drilled into my head by medical professionals that it’s rare for people with CF to live past a certain age. But that’s a story for another time.
I started a new birthday tradition the first year after my transplant. I go to my favorite place for a few days to disconnect from the world. I tune into the beauty of nature and all the things that bring me back to myself. I feel like I can finally celebrate the fact that I am getting older as a person with CF.
This has become a time of reflection for me: I recognize how far I’ve come, what God has carried me through, and where I am today. It’s a time to restore hope for the future. Seeing what’s possible on this side of transplant is awe-striking every time I think about it. The fact that I have been given a second chance to live in a completely different way is wild, and something I never want to take for granted.
I wonder what would happen if we celebrated birthdays like they were an accomplishment. Because in actuality, they are. Birthdays are almost like a victory dance. They’re a congratulatory message that says, “Hey, you made it another year.”
I revel in the miracle of my life because I’ve almost died so many times. Every day feels like a brand-new gift, especially with these new lungs. And birthdays remind me just how precious each passing year that I get to be here truly is.
Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.