My friend did not want to celebrate her 30th birthday. She hadn’t accomplished what she had expected. She drowned in a void — her hollowness filled with a ticking clock, save-the-date cards, movies and shows with typical American happy endings. To her, 30 was not part of the linear ascent but rather a cliff. “You can either feel young or wise,” she said.
There are many things to count besides years of living. As a boy I counted my baseball cards; specifically the ones with Ken Griffey, Jr., and Cal Ripken, Jr. I counted the minutes until I was allowed to finish practicing piano. I counted each passed week during summer break, glowing after only one and sulking with only a few left.
When I was 16 and 17, I watched the hour-countdown on my IV pump, rejoiced at the beep, watched the next hour-countdown, rejoiced at the next beep. I counted the drips of anti-tumor drugs. Some staggered, clumped together and formed one large drip. Others followed one after the other. I counted down until bedtime so that I could begin again the next day.
I counted the days after cancer surgery until I could eat Cinnabon and wear my favorite yellow Adidas pants. I counted the minutes until radiation sessions ended and days until I didn’t need any more radiation.
When I was 19 with my second cancer, I counted the days until I found a bone marrow donor and both rejoiced and cowered when that countdown ended. After my transplant I counted the days until I was allowed to step outside my hospital room to read the gossip magazines in the nook. I tallied my vomits and both rejoiced and felt disappointment when they stopped. I wanted to reach triple digits.
I counted the months until I weaned off immunosuppressants and the years until I completed my inoculations and reached my five-year cancer-free marks. I sometimes counted how much of my life was stolen by cancer, how far behind I was and how fast I’d have to catch up. I liked to think treatment slowed cell aging which allowed me to retain my youth, though more than likely my maturity just remained that of a teenager.
Then I counted the medications I stopped taking; the plummet in heartbeats per minute and increase in iron plates during exercise; decrease in ferritin in my blood and increase in bone mineral density; the body fat I shed; the girls I went out with and the ones I was too scared to ask; the books I finished on Kindle. I estimated my calorie consumption for fat-burning, maintenance, and cheat days. The last estimate is the most challenging and fun.
And I counted the hundreds of thousands of dollars I would need before I could afford a home in Washington, DC; the days lost commuting; the video gaming, pranks, sleep, fun, travels and adventures lost being a real adult. I counted the Washington Redskins losses until I couldn’t count any higher.
I think of my next traveling and rock-climbing adventures; the next new inspiring friend I’ll meet; the next time I’ll think I’m in love three minutes after meeting someone; the next task I’ll help my parents with; the Samsung Galaxy S XXXIII; other uses for flying drones; my future fantasy football keeper players.
I think of how long I’ll live if I keep getting allergy shots and eating cauliflower. Probably 150.
When I was a boy I hated shrimp and now I could eat Bang Bang Shrimp at Bonefish Grill every day. Timelines and expectations we have set for ourselves can change, too, and like how a horizon changes based on the observer’s position, one viewpoint is no lesser than the other.
I will embrace turning 30 this month and continuing to feel young and unwise — after all, I have 120 more years to learn.
By Benjamin Rubenstein
December 15, 2013
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