Not Just a Birthday

As a kid, the anticipation surrounding birthdays was as magical as the day itself. Showing up at school with the chocolate cupcakes my mom made was an annual occasion for most, if not all, of grammar school. Along the way, there were pizza parties at bowling alleys and a variety of other opportunities to blow out candles, eat cake and ice cream, and celebrate my journey to adulthood. Most of the details escape me except a vivid memory of the feeling it wasn’t happening fast enough. I longed for milestones like becoming a teenager, getting my driver’s license, and turning 21.

I don’t recall exactly when it happened, but my enthusiasm for birthdays gradually vanished. With the exception of my 27th birthday, I didn’t celebrate birthdays much in my 20s and 30s. I didn’t plan to celebrate turning 27 either, but that was the day my friend, BJ Trausch, invited a bunch of us to his townhouse on Wisconsin/Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Park. What I thought was a night of chili and beer turned out to be a surprise party. I wasn’t emotionally capable of tears of joy at that point in my life, but I must confess, I’m getting a few now as I think about how special that truly was.

Not too many years later, birthdays ceased to be a cause for celebration and became, instead, a yearly reminder that I wasn’t where I thought I should be. Too heavily influenced by what society deems acceptable, birthdays became more bitter than sweet. I wasn’t happy that I hadn’t achieved the kind of success I had envisioned. Nor had I met the woman of my dreams. Annual “Happy Birthday, your rates just increased” letters from health insurance providers did nothing to help.

But the Universe works in strange and miraculous ways.

On February 18, 2015, I started my 48th birthday with what I thought was a relatively routine CT scan. I was wrong. Later that afternoon, as I happily read Facebook birthday greetings, I received a call with the results. The swollen lymph nodes in my neck, which I thought were the result of an easily treatable infection, were the literal tip of a much bigger issue—an 8cm x 5cm x 7cm tumor in my chest right above my heart. In an instant, my world changed.

While I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, the strange timing made me wonder if I would live to see another birthday. In less than the time it took to gasp, I gained an immediate appreciation for the profound gift birthdays are. That proved to be the first of many gifts the tumors bestowed on me.

I often hear people talk about their “birthday week” or “birthday month”, but I never expected to have, from a personal and spiritual perspective, what turned out to be a birthday year. The love and friendship I experienced in my 48th year on this planet unexpectedly surpassed the sum of the previous 47. For that I thank each and every one of you. In more ways than I can ever adequately document, my friends and family—even complete strangers—came together to form a stunning and magnificent network of support. As a result, I have never felt more loved, more connected, or more excited about my life than I do right now. The few lingering side effects of last year’s 34 days in the hospital and 545 hours of chemo are little more than gentle reminders of my status as the luckiest guy I know.

As I reflect on the past year with the deepest appreciation, I have become aware of another profound shift. February 18, 2016 doesn’t represent the 49th anniversary of my birth as much as it marks the 1st anniversary of the most amazing and awe-inspiring present I have ever received. That’s a pretty cool feeling. And I am beyond grateful.

Happy birthday indeed.

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