It wasn’t much of a day for celebrating, this rainy Wednesday. In years past we’ve marked my husband’s June birthday with lobster dinners in Maine, or hiking with our boys and our friends on Monhegan Island. There have been poems written, surprise parties thrown, memorable gatherings around our porch table, cards and presents and cakes and people. But yesterday I could offer none of those things.
I’d spent the day before having surgery on my face for a small skin cancer that required excision and some careful reconstruction, and as of yesterday morning I was still loopy from the anesthesia. I had a swollen, bandaged temple, stitches, pain when I smiled or frowned. It was raining. Our kids are both away at their summer jobs. How to create a birthday out of this?
We thought about going out to dinner, but Steve said he’d rather be at home. And so I mustered the energy to shop for food, then stood in the rain in the parking lot at the grocery store, trying in vain to keep my face bandage dry while shoving my key into a car door that wouldn’t open. Of course it wouldn’t — after a few seconds of fruitless key-jamming, it finally dawned on me that I was trying to force my way into someone else’s car. I had no idea where my own might be, so I wandered around for a while till I finally found it, and then I realized I had no memory whatsoever of parking it. No wonder the doctor had told me not to drive for a day!
Home at last, I hauled in the grocery bags, took a couple of extra-strength Tylenol, put the entire Van Morrison play list on the stereo, and spent the afternoon making lasagna, salad, a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. The rain came down. The kitchen filled with good smells. And I found myself surprised by gratitude.
Twenty-five years I’ve written birthday cards to this man, and it suddenly occurred to me that the only thing either of us really wants now is a decent shot at twenty-five or so more. We are at an age, and at a stage in life, where we’re reminded on a daily basis that we would be fools to take any moment of any of this for granted. Life is a gift, not a promise. And for today, anyway, we hold that gift intact in the palms of our hands — our good health, our togetherness, our love, our future.
There is nothing like a day spent in the hospital to remind you just how precious a day NOT spent in the hospital is. Nothing like a minor health scare to make you praise God for every single working body part. Nothing like a little operation, and a few hours lost to the nowhere land of anesthesia, to make you fall to your knees and kiss the solid ground of your own messy, mundane, incredibly lovely life. Nothing like checking out for a day to make you want to shout with joy at the simple fact that you are being allowed, this time, to check right back in.
My husband came into my post-op cubicle on Tuesday afternoon to listen to the going-home instructions just as I was coming to, landing back in my own body after flying through the oblivion of sedation. He smiled when he saw me and kissed my head, never letting on for one single second that he was shocked by what he saw: my sagging face, my paralyzed brow, my eye drooping shut like a stroke victim’s. He had no idea, then, whether or not this new lopsided version of me was permanent, but I’ll forever give him credit for not registering one iota of dismay at the sorry, crooked sight of me.
(It wasn’t until I got a look in a mirror myself, an hour later, that I appreciated what he’d done for me, comprehended the grace and the fortitude of that smile.) This, I venture to say, is what old, seasoned love is all about: being able to produce a heartfelt, adoring expression even when your spouse looks like hell, even when she can’t stand up to put her own pants on, even when you’re asked to push her down the hall in a wheelchair, even when you don’t know for certain if she is destined to look forevermore like a bad Cubist painting.
Darkness fell early last night, despite the fact that it was the second longest day of the year. I lit some candles, opened a bottle of champagne, served up dinner, gave Steve a card. My husband is sixty-two. I remember the year my own dad turned sixty, how very old he seemed to me then. Now, I can’t help but wonder how we ended up here ourselves, with so many years suddenly behind us and not quite so many left ahead. I want to live them well. When I ask myself how to do that, two simple words come to mind: “Be kind.” Such a modest aspiration. Such a formidable challenge. Such an essential instruction.
This morning, I filled the bathtub with hot water, climbed in, and then called my husband to the bathroom to give me a hand. While he held a towel over my bandage, I washed my hair. Another humbling first. What else, I wonder, will we be asked to do for one another as age creeps in and exacts its toll? “Before you know what kindness is,” writes Naomi Shihab Nye, “you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment, like weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.”
This, I suspect, is the territory that lies just ahead and around the curve of today. A place where loss grows familiar, where joy becomes inextricably bound with sorrow, where endings outnumber beginnings, and where, as we make our tender peace with things as they are, “only kindness makes sense any more.”