I turned thirty-six a week ago today. It was a beautiful day that included Shiv singing “Happy Birthday to You” at the top of her lungs, my mom’s incomparable samosas, a visit to a winery with my two best ladies, Jill’s fried shrimp which is so good it’s spoiled me from eating it at restaurants, lots of laughter, one of those perfect Arizona sunsets, and, most powerfully, the chance to see a dear friend face-to-face following a scary accident from which she shouldn’t have survived but miraculously did.
Anyone who’s spent significant and unanticipated time inside of a hospital knows that the experience changes you forever, no matter how fully the patient in question may recover. It’s like trying to reassemble one of Shiv’s Lego kits after playing with it: the pieces clearly fit inside the original packaging before, but somehow once taken out, you can’t get them back in the quite same way. Hospitals are pretty terrible places, but they’re quite good at eviscerating any previously-held notions of what actually matters. My time with Jill in the chemo ward, with my dad in ICU, alongside two of my closest friends as they cared for their mothers— pushed me to expand both my capabilities and my desires in ways that fundamentally altered my outlook on life.
I am not someone who ascribes a lot of meaning or significance to age as a number; when you have been told your whole life that you are “mature for your age” and then marry someone nineteen years your elder, you tend to get pretty annoyed with people who think that numerical age is a surefire indicator of, well, anything. But this birthday did feel significant, in a way that surprised me.
When I was a kid, I had certain achievement-oriented goals for my future self; namely, I wanted to publish a book and become a parent. I’ve wanted these things for as long as I can remember, wanted them deep in my bones. And now, here I am, and both are real: my amazing Shiv, and a book coming out in February.
It would be logical to assume that I might now feel lost, untethered from a set of expectations and plans for my future, unsure of what I might base my identity on going forward. But instead, I feel free, liberated from my own self-imposed limitations. I never imagined life at thirty-six; I had no idea what else I might want, what else I might do, once I achieved the milestones I wanted so badly, the milestones I thought would bring meaning to my life.
The truth is that my sense of meaning has little to do with what I’ve produced or any titles I can claim: how easily I sometimes forget, and how much I hate that it’s often hospitals that force me to remember. The work of being present on this planet, of living out my core values—love, integrity, & generosity—as consistently as I can, of honoring my commitment to being in relationship and being in reality: those are the things I can still hold onto when I find myself sitting next to the hospital bed of someone I love, or in a hospital bed myself, as we all inevitably will someday be.
What a gift, this life, these thirty-six-and-counting years.