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December 11, 2013
Tune My Heart
I Like My Birthdays, Every One
by Marian Stoddard

Age is a funny thing. When we are children, we are anxious to claim our next milestone, no matter how much we may be stretching the facts. “I’m almost eight!” may be the reply to the standard adult query, even though that “almost” could be several months.

Children are eager to anticipate the next notch on the chart that proves they are growing up. In fact, we delight with them in each new milestone of age and accomplishment, and we should.

Birthdays are something that some of us love, and some of us hate to think about. When I called a son-in-law on his recent birthday, he laughed and told me that he was enjoying what would be his last birthday — I had to think a second, and realize, “Oh, that’s right, you’re thirty-nine, aren’t you?” (I suggested he find a clip of Jack Benny’s comedy schtick. If you’re young enough to draw a blank, then go looking.)

My husband would probably (now) be disappointed if I completely forgot, or if none of our kids called, but he would prefer that no one else know. He doesn’t want a fuss. I, on the other hand, would be pleased by being remembered.

Some birthdays are more of a jump than others. Culture is a factor there, as our culture values and emphasizes youth and energy. Beauty products rake in the dollars as they tell you that they can keep you looking young. That’s the kind of message we’re bombarded with, right and left.

On the other hand, when my husband and I served a stake mission with the Vietnamese branch that was attached to our ward at the time, the elders told us that we might be asked our age. In that culture, that was a polite question. The older you were, the more honor was due you.

I don’t recall ever being asked that question in the two years we served; I guess that, in our forties, we were old enough to be respectable, but not old enough to be venerable. And that was fine.

It’s the decade changes that can be hard. When my husband turned sixty, I realized that I was being careful to mention that I, myself, was younger as I said it was his birthday. (See, I do tell on him, judiciously.) That hadn’t been a big deal the year before. I couldn’t imagine sixty, quite, for myself.

I had a little bit of a hard time turning fifty. When I turned fifty-five, I joked that now that I had hit the double-nickel, I would stop. Maybe I could go backwards each year until I returned to fifty, and stay there. But I couldn’t do it. I blame my mother — she was always matter-of-fact about her age. If you ask her how old she is, she’ll answer; it won’t bother her, and I guess I absorbed her no-fuss example.

So this year, I contemplated going from fifty-nine, which seemed okay, to sixty, which was a gulp. Not a crisis, but it would give me pause. I was glad I had a few months to think about it.

As the weeks approached, though, I found myself being drawn back to memories of turning forty. That was a milestone I celebrated. That was the one adult birthday for which I threw myself a party, because it was a birthday I might not have reached.

Most families, sometime, have stretches where one particular child is always sick. I was that child a lot. I ended up in the hospital, having my tonsils and adenoids out, when I was five. I got an ear infection on top of the measles — the sickest I had ever been — and then had ear infections frequently for another half-dozen years. Then they came back through my twenties.

I was sometimes hit by breathing attacks starting in fourth grade. I guess I’d had the like when I was too little to remember. By what we know now, it would be termed reactive airway syndrome rather than the asthma it was labeled then. I would regularly get bronchitis in the winter, if I was worn out.

But the kicker was the mono. I went to high school for three days, and wasn’t seen again until Halloween. I developed a kidney infection, for whatever reason, while I was in the debilitated state of that illness, and it wasn’t recognized immediately as something new. Treatment was a six-week course of gantrisin (a sulfa), and a follow-up test gave the all-clear.

Except it wasn’t. In two or three weeks I was back again, with low-grade fever, headache, backache, no energy, urinary burning, and a repeat test showed I had another kidney infection. Treat and repeat, same success, then same recurrence.

The doctor told us to wait a week after the course of antibiotics to run the recheck, it would be clear, and within a month — usually sooner — I would be back again, sick. This went on all through the school year. It continued the following year.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the doctor told my mother that if we couldn’t get this licked, I could be in the start of a pattern that would progress in seriousness through the years, with marriage and pregnancies, and I would end up on dialysis by the time I was thirty and dead by the time I was forty, unless kidney transplants, which were an experimental procedure at the time, worked out. It was a sobering conversation.

I knew nothing about that prediction, but I did know that I was very tired of being sick. I was tired of the school nurse telling me not to overdo it and my math teacher telling me that she thought I wasn’t trying. I was tired of having to use my choir period to go lie down, and tired of falling over anyway when I got home from school. I missed friends who had made the transition to high school without me, settling into other patterns and friendships because I had simply not been there.

My parents asked all the family to join in a day of fasting, and asked for a priesthood blessing. My brother Morgan, who was twelve, remembers the solemnity of that gathering, asking that I be made fully well. I finished the course of treatment that I was on, and never had another recurrence.

Pregnant with my first child, though, I developed borderline toxemia, or pre-eclampsia. I was put on complete bed rest, which succeeded in keeping me out of the hospital, and pushed fluids. My kidneys soldiered on and functioned perfectly; protein in the urine is one of the danger points of this condition.

Then I had no problems with the pregnancy for my second child, and my mother, once I had delivered, told me that she could finally relax now and why. In the back of her mind, she had still worried a little, because moms are like that. I could have told her there was no need. I had felt the power of that blessing.

But that’s why forty was a happy milestone. And being led to remember that, I thought of all the experiences I’ve had and the learning I’ve gained in the years since. Twenty extra years, and counting, of being taught and blessed; and life is a good gift. By the time my birthday came, I was simply happy for it.

I’m sixty years old now. (And I’m a senior ticket at the movies!) Cool.

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