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May 2, 2010

Today I turn sixty. It snowed on the 2nd of May in 1950, and stayed cool that entire summer, according to my dad. I arrived two weeks overdue, weighing nearly ten pounds, jaundiced and both lungs filled with fluid. My mother said I looked like a 6-month-old stuffed in that incubator. My head was bruised and dented from the forceps delivery. Apparently I wasn’t much interested in entering the world. My grandmother looked at her first grandchild and pronounced me the most beautiful baby she’d ever seen. “I don’t know what she saw,” my mother told me years later. “You were a mess. We both were.” Her brother Howard, 15 at the time, came to the hospital to donate blood but the nurse sent him home. He was too young. “Don’t dwell on the numbers,” Howard wrote in an email this morning. “You being 60 seems no more possible than me being 75.”

Ali hates that she has disability. She wants to meet someone who makes her feel special, wanted, loved. We can give our kids a lot of things but sometimes, where it counts the most, we’re as helpless as newborns. “I’ve walked and talked for 60 years,” I tell Ali a month ago. “If I could, I’d give you my legs and my voice, and I’d use the wheelchair and the talker for the time I have left.” Her face opens to the possibility. The next afternoon she calls from campus. “Remember what you said yesterday?” she types, cooing into the phone. “I want to trade places.” I stare out the window. The neighbor boys are kicking a ball in the backyard. The younger one trips and stumbles. If trading places were really possible, would I be so magnanimous?

The contract was my yoga teacher’s idea. “I write a new one every 28 days,” she tells me, “on the new moon.” I stop at Meininger’s on the way home and buy a notebook with a smooth red cover and narrow-lined pages. I buy a sand-colored rock the size of my fist, stamped with the word Courage. The rock and the notebook sit on my desk, untouched, for a week. The notebook goes in the bag to Cabo. On the sixth morning, while Tony is in the gym, I sit with a cup of tea on our third floor balcony, stare at the Sea of Cortez, and write a contract with myself. I will give our children—all three of them—the space to have their own lives and take the space required to have mine. Instead of worrying that I might be disappointing others, I will ask if I am disappointing myself. Before saying yes to any request, from anyone, I will check in with myself: is this something I want to do. I fill three pages.

After dinner Tess offers to play the song she’s singing at the school Cabaret. She sits in the brown leather chair, wearing gym shorts and an Under Armour top, one bare leg tucked under the other. Her shoulder length hair is pulled into a pony tail. Loose strands frame her face. She sings like a bird. “We are so fragile. Breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys.” Her voice blends with the strum of the ukulele as she watches her fingers find their way across the strings. We do more than listen. We bear witness.

I open the envelope from my brother and read the Satchel Paige quote on the front of the card. How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? I pull out the letter. Dear Becky, Don’t even think about it. Happy birthday. Time passes, we get wiser, life is good, it is what it is. Equanimity is a goal we should strive for, although with a teenager in the house, equanimity is difficult to understand, much less achieve.

I cleaned winter’s debris from the gardens in late March. I’ve loved watching the tulips come into bloom, the tiny white flowers of the sweet woodruff appear, the first blossom on the purple cranesbill pop along the front walk. For thirty years I’ve pictured myself gardening well into old age, nurturing, pruning, weeding, tending. Until now. If the gardens are calling, I do not hear them. I trekked the trails of the Andes last summer, and discovered that light-spirited, funny, freedom-loving soul I thought I’d lost. Turns out she was right where I’d left her, buried beneath an over-functioning personality who’s been stepping up, saying yes, and tending to for decades.

Next December Pierce and I are traveling to the Pokhara region of Nepal. We’re helping to install a water system in a remote village that has no access to fresh water. Locals walk for miles to fetch water, or drink polluted surface water. “I want to go,” I tell Pierce one day last January, “and I want you to come with me.” We’re in the car. He turns to look at me, then breaks into a smile. OK is all he says, but that smile tells me everything.

“People think yoga is this magical, meditative state of oneness, but it’s not. Yoga is dirty and gritty and messy—like life.” The lesson has started. “Yoga teaches us where we’re holding on, where we’re stuck. If we let it, the practice informs us.” I plant my hands at the top of the mat, spread wide the fingers and toes, raise my hips to the sky and press down on my heels. I inhale and lift the hips higher, drop the heels another inch, lower the heart, allow the shoulder blades to roll onto the back. I slowly uncurl into plank, lower to the floor, rise into cobra and back to downward-facing dog, taking the body into crescent lunge with the next in-breath. “Lower your ribs,” she says, and pulls them into my chest, pushes them down. “These are the tell-tale sign of a woman who gives too much.” I will myself not to cry.

“There could be some retardation, possibly developmental problems. It’s too early to tell. We’ll know more in six months.” Doc Kinkade and my dad stare at the fat, bruised baby in the incubator. “Don’t tell Alice. She’d only worry.” Maybe that was why my father was always so proud of me, told me I was beautiful and smart every chance he had. For months he’d waited in silence to see if his firstborn would sit, crawl, walk, talk. I didn’t take a step until I was 14 months old, then walked across the room. Dad came home in the middle of the day to see for himself. I know how it feels to wonder if anything will be different in six months, in six years. My father was spared. I was not.

“Maybe this is about forgiving yourself,” the yoga teacher says. Almost as an afterthought, she tells me she was diagnosed with lupus last week. “My body is attacking itself. How bizarre is that?” In an instant, I love her. This woman who can do postures I’ll never do, who possesses the physical strength of an ox and a body suitable for the cover of Yoga Journal, is human after all. In each human being there is a meeting with the divine. That intersection is the heart. So says Coleman Barks. I also love him.

My husband takes the two of us to Cabo in celebration of me turning sixty. On the morning of my birthday, back in Denver, we eat omelets in a favorite neighborhood cafe. He prepares a gorgeous fillet of salmon for dinner, with crab and spinach-stuffed mushrooms, a medley of grilled peppers and zucchini, a salad dressed in Dijon vinaigrette, a wedge of carrot cake. A vase of lilies and alstroemeria sits on the piano. For the first time in seven years, he does not give me a card. I am mystified.

The house lights go down as sixteen women walk onto the stage and stand below a panoramic masterpiece of the Grand Canyon. One by one, a harp, Native American flute and deep drum fill the silence. An African-American woman dances slowly onto the stage, moving to the beat of the a cappella chanting. My friend and I take our place among the living, counting ourselves lucky to be here…on this day, at this moment.

On my sixtieth birthday I am grateful for a strong body, good health, a loving husband and family, great friends, children who are finding their way, a family business that pays the bills, a return to writing. My youngest nephew calls to wish me happy birthday. I do most of the talking. After we’ve covered baseball and the afternoon’s game, I offer an admission: your Aunt Becky is kinda old. From this quiet-mannered, tall, lean, athletic 14-year-old comes exactly what I need to hear. “It’s OK.”

7 thoughts on “May 2, 2010

  1. What a thoroughly lovely writing. I am “undone” by the story of Ali and changing places. I wonder if Paul Remy would feel exactly the same. Gillian

  2. that is a great ending and a great post! i love that trenton said it was ok. that’s perfect! and it is – you are beautiful, wise and just how i want to be when i’m your age! happy birthday – i love you!

  3. Ah, to trade. Would I if I could? Would I choose to inflict blindness upon another? There are those that would volunteer, I believe. Would I, with all my years of experience as a blind person, choose to cast off all the impediments onto another. Someone with no experience as a blind person would be lost, crushed by such a sudden, dramatic change in their lives. Would I be able to enjoy my new found sight, knowing what I had done to another? Would my pleasure of seeing my daughters smiling face, for the first time, be tainted by the fact that I had robbed someone else of that pleasure? I do not believe I could do that, and I bet that Ali understands what I am saying. I hate being blind, but I am in the best position to know why being blind is something I’d rather not have to put someone else through. I’ve been dealing with it for more than 35 years now. I am in a much better place to deal with it than someone who chose to take on that burden for me. It is a magnificent dream to cast off my problems onto another, but it comes with a heavy penalty. Essentially pushing tens of times of my problems onto someone else. That doesn’t seem all that fair a trade. Now, if we could arrange some kind of sharing policy, I might go for that. :-)

  4. Once again your eloquence and humanness leaves me in tears. I am so in awe of you and so very proud to call you my friend. We should all be so alive and aware as we turn 60! love you, kath

  5. Rebecca,

    Happy Birthday…you are beautiful and full of grace and elegance. Mikelle recently said at presentation, I have cerebral palsy and it sucks.

    I think all of us are realizing we are at a different stage in life, we are older but powerful. Our children, they are beginning to settle into what being an adult with cp means, it isn’t something that they will out grow, although, with medical breakthroughs, they may have a chance to live without it in their lifetimes.

    You are a wonderful woman. Continue on dear one.

    Katherine

  6. Beckylee,

    I’m completely numb and awestruck each time I read your new posts. Few souls can rip open their hearts and write about it so beautifully.

    I kept meaning all week to email you a Happy Birthday message and instead you sent me a gift via your words.

    Thanks!

    Love,

    Greg

  7. Rebecca,
    I fell behind and hadn’t read May, until today, with your latest post. Can I tell you how inspired I am by you? Reading your posts always moves me to tears. I just can’t explain it. It’s not “normal”, me crying at something I read, not regularly anymore at least. Your words are like a feather accross sand. They are truly beautiful and always inspiring. I’m so glad I met you in Peru.

    Love,
    Karen

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