It’s my 28th birthday this Sunday, the 1st of August. And I could not be less excited about it.
My birthday has always been important to me. I may joke about it being the most important day of the year, a worthy national holiday, even – and in the past few years I’ve discovered Leo Season which, honestly, has been life-changing and so validating – but I don’t think I can actually communicate just how special a day it is, in my mind. I was one of the summer babies at school, and it always felt like I was lagging behind everyone else. Everyone else had their days before me; they all turned 16 and started having sex (legally!), then they were suddenly all 17 and learning to drive in their battered little 1998 Corsas, then before I knew it I was the only one having to reach over the fence at the back of the Spoons patio to grab my friend’s ID after she’d been let in. I also struggled to arrange my birthday parties, because they always fell slap bang in the middle of the summer break, when everyone else was on a wholesome family holiday in Majorca. I found out somewhere along the way that my birth was planned around Wimbledon; mama wanted to watch it in full on her maternity leave. (I ask her how that year was, and she doesn’t remember. Sigh.)
I remember thinking when school ends, it won’t matter when my birthday is. And, when I’m 21, age will stop mattering. I guess that was how I comforted myself. I would also say I was older sometimes, and I still mentally ‘age myself up’ 6 months before my next birthday. You know, like, I’m 27 right now, but since February I’ve been telling people I’m 28. Does anyone else do that? Anyway. Turns out my age did stop mattering after my time in education abruptly ended… but to be honest, if I’d had the choice, I’d rather have kept worrying about that.
photo by Rebecca Brooker
I got my first scary diagnosis when I was 20. Less than two months off 21, in fact. You all know the rest by now. What followed were 5 years of… oh, I’m struggling to find the right words. Chaos? Mess? Drama? yes, all of those. But also – loss, grief, sadness. Confusion, pain, heartbreak. Madness. Exhaustion. Stop-starts. Hold-ups. Waiting. Good news and bad news. Learning. And a lot of nothing.
I did some great things, too. In between the blips and bumps. I made new friends, travelled around a bit, won a couple of rounds of a national barista championship – y’know, normal stuff. Yet still, right now, I don’t feel like I really had those years. They weren’t all mine. I’m not sure whose they were, really. I feel like the little buddy living in my left lobe has a few stolen months tucked away in his pocket, and my patched-up intestines will probably always cling on to the spring of 2017 – and many days since, when they’ve thrown tantrums and reminded me that they can see inside my mind. I know I left a lot of my time in hospital wards. It leaked out of me quietly while I frantically jabbed at the morphine button. Hours of my life were wiped from the floors of operating theatres and washed off surgeons’ scrubs at the end of their shifts. I expect the sofas in the old family home absorbed so much of me, as I healed over and over again – and each time, I’d wonder if this would be it. Was I done yet? The kind nurses would always tell me I was doing well, that I’d feel like my old self again in a matter of months. I never really did. How could I? I hadn’t lived as myself in so long. I’d forgotten how to be the me I was.
I lost those 5 years. I will always say it was worth the struggles, I’m better for it, I’d rather it was me than anyone else, wouldn’t take anything back, everything happens for a reason – but that’s not to say I don’t still think about who I’d be and where I’d have got to if I hadn’t had these things happen. I find myself resenting, sometimes. I resent the other people my age, who graduated when I did but are now 5 years ahead of me in life – buying houses, getting married, having babies, building careers. It’s like I’m a teenager again, watching the whole school canteen singing happy birthday to one of the girls in my year group who was lucky enough to be born in September. I resent the universe, for dealing me this hand. Then I feel bad, because I know it could have been so much worse. A friend of mine died about a week before she’d have turned 30. I’m so lucky to still be here, even if I don’t feel like I was here for a good while. Very lucky. I’m being ungrateful. I’m nearly 28, and I have my whole life ahead of me. I’ve been through so much, I’ve come back from it, I’m so ‘inspirational’ and ‘a fighter’. The best is yet to come, etc etc.
Well then, why do I feel about 22, and I have no idea what I’m doing?