Aging and Birthdays Can Be Tough. But Not for Me
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The Birthday That Ushered in a Whole New Attitude

And the best gift I ever got.

Illustrated animation of woman blowing out candles on birthday cake
Oliver Silvester

I woke as usual on Oct. 9, at 7 a.m. — the hour at which I was born. This year my first birthday gift was an early-morning phone call from Frank, the man who was due to finish replacing the siding outside my bedroom window at any moment. “I have some bad news,” he said. “My arthritis is acting up and I won’t be able to make it.”

I looked at the man lying next to me and told him that I would like to make love on this special day. It may not sound unusual, but this man was my ex-husband. I was healing from cervical spine fusion surgery and finally feeling carnal desire. Married in 1984, we had not made love since before our divorce over 15 years ago. Yet, he had been in my bed for the past year, since I broke my neck and he came to my aid. With his strong suits, nurturing and generosity of time, he took care of me — a fragile version of myself — driving to doctors and doing errands, giving me daily injections of Forteo to build degenerating bones, cooking dinners.

We had been sheltering at my small country house since the arrival of COVID, near beaches that were the sites of self-repair, where long walks and moving through the bay daily increased strength and functioning. I used to swim long distance in those waters. On this October day, the early-morning sun glistened on the leaves, the silence outside intoxicating.

Tentative at first, we were familiar with our new older bodies as constant companions but not as sexual beings. Eventually we found our rhythm and way back to each other. I didn’t divulge that the last sex I’d had was nine years earlier and that it was so bad I didn’t want to try again. The ex admitted it had been a long time for him, too.

On my birthday, we were virgins rediscovering a deep prior knowledge. With no pressure or expectations, it was easy and complete. I felt open but not vulnerable. When we pushed back the covers, we realized that our bodies looked better to each other than during our marriage.

Arising from bed, my body humming, I felt a mellowness I hadn’t experienced in decades. I vowed to keep this feeling at first by speaking softly to keep from disturbing the corporeal vibrating. This was different from dating; there was no wondering if it could happen again.

Later in the afternoon, we took a long walk through dunes in The Promised Land, part of a nearby state park. The trail opened onto a tranquil beach I had never been to. A little house on stilts in the bay, probably used for fishermen’s storage, thrilled me as a new discovery. We could have been on some exotic island off Africa or just about anywhere. During the hours of strident meandering, I thought back to the first birthday I spent with him 37 years ago. In the throes of hot new coupling, I was a little disappointed that the celebration was a day at Bear Mountain and dinner at a cute little Italian restaurant, whose name I couldn’t remember, in Greenwich Village — and no gift. My upwardly mobile Jewish family had raised me to assume there would be more bling in a serious relationship. There was a subsequent year of unmet expectations, leading to the understanding that he was a man of modest means. This year not only did we have a great morning and lovely time outdoors, but he took me to an Italian restaurant in Sag Harbor that had spacious social distance seating outside under heaters and behind tasteful hedges to separate diners from the passersby on the sidewalk. He insisted I order everything on the menu I liked because it was my birthday. I finally appreciated his brand of extravagance.

Last year, after enduring such a serious injury, I didn’t know if I would ever celebrate anything again. This birthday felt like a new beginning, a rebirth, another chance. I am no longer in constant pain and can experience pleasure. As if that’s not enough, I am grateful to have a backyard where I can see the wind vibrate through the trees and take deep breaths of clean air. I have entered the “who gives a f--- era” of my life. Although the hundreds of birthday wishes on Facebook were amazing and flattering, I don’t worry about who or what other people consider the norm. It’s liberating and makes endless possibilities easier to believe in. Contemplating what my world will look like when I return to the city shortly, I am no longer overwhelmed. 

My ex will resume living in his apartment but we will spend many nights, dinners and other times together. I am looking forward to having my own space again and new people in it. Although I haven’t been to my office desk in a year, because of my own injury and the pandemic, it is there and waiting. I will work as best I can and know that will be good enough, believing in my own strengths, over the judgment of others. Perhaps the biggest birthday gift I got was to be happy with who I am and what I have.
                                                    

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