At first light, I awake with the fluttery anticipation of a little girl on Christmas Day. Except I know there will be no overstuffed stockings on a mantelpiece, no magic or mystery or wonder awaiting me.
“It’s just a birthday,” I remind myself, ever the killjoy to my own inner child. “And kind of an advanced one, at that.” I chide.
Still, there’s no denying the day feels pregnant with promise, like the first day of school. I leap out of bed and surprise my chihuahuas, still asleep on the sofa. Weezle cracks open an eye. Daisy yawns, her tongue a small pink Frito in the gloomy light.
“Good morning, girlies,” I croon. I rub their fat little backs and tuck their blanket back around them. Time for coffee.
I begin to grind the beans, then realize I need to email my old friend Marina. Immediately. Since I was born nearly two full months before her, I’m always the first to cross these decade thresholds.
I go to the computer, type “Help! I’m 60!” and hit “send”.
I’ve known Marina for 57 years. We were inseparable from ages three to fifteen, though our paths diverged wildly in adolescence ‒ hers a straight and narrow track to Yale and a tenured professorship at Columbia, mine a torturous crawl through self doubt and a couple of ill-advised marriages. Still, our childhood bond is a strong one, ever more meaningful as the years roll by. Marina is from a time in my life when birthdays mattered.
By the time the coffee is done dripping, I have my reply. “Oh my goodness, I hope you’re not up at 5:30 a.m. just to email me!” she writes. I wasn’t.
I fling open the curtains, then all the windows and doors to fill the house with cool foggy air before stepping out to fetch the paper. From the front porch, I admire the Hawthorn blossoms floating like white confetti on the surface of my “pond,” an old tin bathtub sunken into the ground and filled with waterlilies. Everyone, me included, mistakes it for a coffin. The shape accommodating bodies both dead and dirty.
A few early morning commuters fly past me on the newly paved road. In the eight years I’ve lived here, I’ve lost both a mailbox and a garbage can. Prepared to leap into the ditch should a texting motorist fail to see me in my bright pink bathrobe, I snatch the folded paper from its webby tube and scurry back inside.
I settle into my favorite spot at the dining room table, looking out onto my garden, the coffee steaming rich and earthy. The virgin newspaper, clean and crisp, full of promise. Contentment settles over me like a warm blanket. Even Trump’s misdeeds seem comical, rather than alarming, this morning. I give God the thumbs-up sign.
After I read the best bits, I skim the obituaries looking for anyone I know. Not recognizing any of the names or photos, I read the accounts of those who died too young. “Passed away unexpectedly in her sleep.” “After a brief battle with…”
Grateful, again, for the seventeen years since my own boxing match with mortality.
I turn on my computer. There’s an email from my brother Alex.“I always suspected I would have to write this email someday, but it is still a brutal realization that “someday” is now……It is time to call it quits. Ann and I are going home, which is exactly where I want to spend whatever remaining time I have….”
Two days ago, my other brothers and I had been with Alex in Scottsdale, where he’d been getting treatment for pancreatic cancer. He’d been getting his nutrition intravenously for a few weeks by then, declaring himself “full” after eating a single ripe cherry. Alex had lost so much weight the flesh had pulled back from his teeth. Glancing at him, trying not to stare at this new version of my beloved older sibling, I understood what the term “skeletal” meant.
“When the time comes,” Alex had told us, “I’ll have no regrets. I’ll know I’ve done everything I could possibly have done to beat this.”
Those words come back to me as I read and reread his letter, just three days later.
I compose my reply carefully. “If there is anything I can do – logistical, medical, meals, anything, please let me know. Anything.” Knowing there will be nothing I can do, will do, would ever be asked to do. Ever and always the older brother, our leader, our shepherd.
I’m glad he’s decided to stop fighting, and that he’s going home. He hated Scottsdale, with its endless miles of bland chain stores and relentless heat. The bleak “extended stay” hotel, where he’d lived with his wife since February, just a human parking place. He yearned for the home he’d finished just months before the awful news, for the company of his adored daughter and her new baby. Every hour in Scottsdale another irreplaceable sixty minutes lost with his first and only grandchild, the infant he’d met only once.
After hitting “send,” again, I pick up the phone. I must call my father right away, before his stepdaughter sees Alex’s email and gives him the news.
Diane is a better daughter than I am to my ninety-eight-year-old father.
She dotes on him, takes him to his doctors’ appointments, to the grocery store, to lunch with friends. But she’ll get him more worked up than he needs to be. The woman feasts on drama.
“Yellow!” my dad answers the phone.
“It’s me, Dad. Kate.”
“Oh, Katie! How you doing, darling? Isn’t today your birthday? Happy birthday! What are you now, sixty?”
“Yup, I’m sixty today, Dad,” I tell him.
“Is Peter taking you out to dinner, I guess?”
“Yeah, I think he’s got something planned,” I lie. I take a deep breath. “But I need to tell you about Alex.”
“Uh hunh.” The last time we spoke, my father told me he wished he could give my brother whatever time he had left. “What’s a few more months or years at my age? I’ve had a full, rich life. But Alex….”
“I got an email just now, Dad. He’s discontinuing his treatment.” I choose my words carefully. “Discontinue his treatment” sounds better than “Go home to die.”
I read my brother’s email over the phone, slowly, enunciating each word with care, so he can take it all in.
Finally, when I’m done, Dad says “So, he’s got what? Two more years or so?”
“No, Dad. Probably about a month, maybe two.”
“Well.” My dad pauses. “You know, life is for the living.”
I don’t know what he means by this, and I don’t think he does, either. It’s just something to say, one of those things you come up with when there is nothing to say.
“Uh-huh” I agree.
Next I text my brother Quentin, who doesn’t have email. “Thought you’d like to know, Alex found out his treatment isn’t working and so he’s going home for good.”
Quentin is a man of few words. “OK” he replies.
My phone rings and it’s my former sister-in-law Edith, in tears.
“I just saw Alex’s email,” she wails. “And I’m just so sad. I don’t know who else to call.”
As we speak, another call comes in. I see it’s her daughter, my niece Fred, but I can never figure out how to answer one phone call while I’m on another. So after Edith and I hang up, I hit “recent call” and dial my niece. She’s crying, too.
“I know this means I need to work things out with my own brother, but I just can’t right now,” Fred tells me.
Her brother, my nephew, is also named Alex.
By now the sun is out. I was born at the prettiest time of year, I think, when spring is so ripe and full it spills into summer. I stroll around the orchard I planted when I first bought this place and spy a few bright cherries dangling coyly among the verdant foliage. This winter I’d almost taken a chainsaw to dispatch these barren, fruitless trees to the great compost pile in the sky. I’d resisted my murderous impulse by remembering the admonition “Don’t quit before the miracle.” The succulent fruit today is my reward, a little birthday present from the universe.
I pluck the fattest, reddest of the fruits, remembering Alex’s last, single cherry.
After lunch I drive to Kaiser for an MRI on my knee, which had been hurting for no good reason. “Really?” I thought when assigned the appointment. “On my birthday?”
“Medical procedures are the sort of thing people in their sixties need to get accustomed to,” I scolded my whiny little girl.
I’d been warned about an MRI. That I might panic from the noise, or feel claustrophobic, trapped inside that tube. But once I’m in the cylinder, earplugs snugly inserted, headphones clamped tight against my skull, a great peace washes over me. I feel the staccato drilling of the machine through my whole body, like the thumping bass at a rock concert, like the beating of my own heart. I envision the heavy magnets spinning round me and I feel safe, protected by an inviolable shield. I don’t ever want this feeling to end. I’m sad when the vibrations grow less intense, sadder still when the lights snap on and my headphones are removed. Already missing my enjoyable mini-death.
Afterward, I drive to the next town to meet a friend for coffee. The fuel light comes on; I stop for gas and begin the routine: credit card, zip code, slap the pad with number “87”, squeeze the trigger. The numbers in the window move so slowly I can count along: 54, 55, 56….After a couple of minutes, I’ve pumped 96 cents worth of gas.
I leave the nozzle hanging and consult with the cashier. “What’s up with Number Eight?” I ask.
“Oh, they’re all doing that today,” she says.
“Like, going super super slow?”
“Mm-hmm. Just turn it off, wait four minutes, and start it again. It’ll be fine.”
“I don’t have four minutes,” I think. Although of course I do.
I probably have lots and lots of four minutes still to live.
I drive to the next gas station, where the pumps are so ancient and vandalized I can hardly read the numbers through the graffiti etched into the plastic screen. These old-style machines are fast. I fill the tank and when the receipt spits out I notice the amount. Sixty dollars and sixty cents, on this, my sixtieth birthday. It feels like a benediction. I take my signs where I can.
At the café where my friend Wendy and I have met every Tuesday afternoon for the last eight years, we order the chocolate beet cake, which we only do on special occasions, whether happy or sad. Today is both. Favorite Waitress, whose name we don’t know, smothers our treat in whipped cream, so much we can’t even see the cake, just the way she knows we like it. We always share a single slice, and Wendy always leaves me the last bite. Which I always eat with a mixture of joy and shame.
On the way out of town I wait at the light next to the local tavern. The guy lounging outside, wearing a backwards ball cap, smoking a cigarette, looks familiar. It’s sweet-natured, sensitive Ian, who used to work for me. The man-boy I’d reluctantly fired after he came in drunk and stoned one time too many. I say a little prayer for him, for all the Ians in the world, as I drive past. Hoping someday I’ll see him at a meeting. That he’ll make it across to the other side.
When I get home, sure enough, the husband comes through.
“Change your clothes! We’ve got a reservation at 6:00.” I spot a card and a small beribboned box on the bed.
Driving home afterwards, the fog’s returned and the sky’s gray and sullen again, the redwoods lining the road dark and somber, almost funereal. I look up and gasp ‒ their pointed tops are aglow, as if on fire. The treetops blazing as bright as birthday candles.
We round a bend and the valley opens out before us. Under the darkening dome of sky, all along the horizon, a brilliant band of shining, blinding gold escapes. It’s the last trace of the fighting, dying sun.
Alex dies exactly one month later, on June 23, 2017.