On January 16, I turned fifty years old.
On January 17, I was admitted to the head trauma unit at Medical Center of the Rockies.
It’s not what you may think. I didn’t implode with any newfound realization that fifty years of my life have gone by. Quite the opposite. Just the day before I was telling my sister that I felt “emboldened,” in the same way that an elderly person feels comfortable spewing whatever comes to mind whenever it comes to mind. Not that I’m not already like that, but now I feel like I’ve earned a certain privilege.
We started the celebration on Saturday with a gorgeous hike through the Devil’s Backbone, not five miles from our house. Imagine this miles-long gnarly spine of rock towering out of the ground, where dinosaurs once roamed, and you find yourself in a place that’s otherworldly. Then imagine the wisdom of present-day citizens who fought development and spared this local world wonder from asphalt and gaudy icicle holiday lights. (Ice factors into my story but not just yet.) One couldn’t help but smile walking through this untouched pristine wilderness, one that compels you to continue ‘round the next corner … and the next … to see what Mother Earth concocted for you. It felt good to get the blood pumping and the nostrils flaring as we enjoyed an afternoon of sunshine with any thought except of gratitude very far away.
With my birthday falling on a Monday, a national holiday that’s not a holiday for those of us who had to work, we enjoyed a special dinner a day early, high on a mountainside overlooking Boulder’s magical city lights. It’s the kind of place you’d find in fairytales, especially those set in snow. A particularly dry winter here in Colorado, there was very little snow up on the mountain, but we speculated how beautiful it must be when dusted with “sugar” (my term of endearment when snow is not a threat). I was celebrating my milestone birthday with the person I love best, doing what I love best: drinking fine wine and eating a gourmet meal. Life is good. Tim honored my wishes by not throwing a party, letting me usher in this milestone in contemplative style.
The Monday holiday—not in celebration of me but in commemoration of someone who had blazed trails of empowerment for his fellow man in both his life and in his death—was a day of reflection. Working on a college campus, we celebrate Martin Luther King Day but not so much that we actually get the day off. There’s a weeklong schedule of events, kicked off by a big faculty/staff breakfast with an inspiring guest speaker to put this bold and courageous man into historical perspective. This is the reason I work at a university, to surround myself with Big Thinkers who analyze everything. Life in the ivory tower doesn’t allow one to go simply through the motions without thinking about the deeper meaning of things, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. By now my Facebook social network was buzzing with birthday wishes, necessitating the silencing of my phone. A few people in the room wished me happy birthday the old fashioned way.
On my way back to my office I overhear a man at our front door saying my name. We pass; he walks back to his unadorned white-panel van. I have no idea why he asked about me, but curiously I wait and watch what he’s doing. Out from the darkness of the van springs this overflowing bouquet of red roses, blue thistle (interesting choice, but I won’t try to overanalyze that) and godetia, under the canopy of three big balloons. Once again Tim chose my favorite special occasion florist, Fleur de Lys. I carefully carried them up the stairs into my office, but the arrangement was so large that I was nose deep in the sprawl and nearly knocked over Nick when he came out of his office to see why his female colleagues were going gaga. The scent was wonderful; the sentiment even more so. I peeled off a quick lovey-dovey text to my sweetheart for loving me that much. Then I reported for volunteer duty serving (MLK) birthday cake to the campus community. There were two kinds, but using restraint I tried only the blueberry-filled white cake with lemon butter-cream frosting. To hell with Weight Watchers points. It’s my fiftieth birthday!
Back at the office I managed to squeeze out a few hours’ work and then left early to meet Tim in Boulder at the Apple store. Finally the new phone I had on order was in. While in the store it started to snow and the roads began to get icy. Driving home I was held up in accident traffic on a single-lane rural road where, around a hairpin turn, someone was going too fast and flipped the car. Flashing blue and red lights from fire trucks and ambulances lighted the scene. I felt for that person, the terror of being upside down, trapped and quite probably hurt or maybe even dead. Turns out that we made a good decision to go out to dinner the night before, and even though the Flagstaff House would have been magical in snow, therein always lies a little bit of danger. I’m wise enough now to make safer decisions.
Once home, Mom called to sing happy birthday. I soaked up every note. How many more times am I going to hear that sweet voice? Mom had me when she was forty, making her nearly ninety. I can’t think about that now. I’m content and happy. Let me enjoy this for a while. We spend a pleasant night at home sipping a memorable bottle of Dom Ruinart blanc de blanc brut that we had been stowing for a special occasion and blowing out my candles arranged in a Roman numeral L for fifty. Only clever Tim would think of that. Being that it was a national holiday, my accumulating birthday cards were held hostage, making the next day the birthday that just keeps on giving.
It continued to snow into Tuesday. It had snowed more near home than it had near work, an hour south, and the temperature plummeted to just six degrees, encrusting the roads in a sheet of ice. (Rewind: Just three days earlier we were hiking in balmy sixty degrees!) When I returned home at the end of the day, it had gotten a tad warmer, but it was still freezing cold and there was plenty of snow still in the driveway. I saw no new tire tracks, signaling to me that I was the first one home. The garage door opened to expose an empty bay, confirming my suspicion. It was 6:45. There’s no telling whether Tim would be along at 7:00, 7:15 or 7:30. I let myself into the house and the dogs out, and as part of my customary routine I asked Seamus (our rescued golden retriever from just a year ago) if he’d like to go with me to pick up the mail. With MLK holding up my birthday greeting delivery the day before, there was bound to be a stack. I had taught Seamus to wait at a certain point in the driveway without following me too close to the road, but this time with snow covering his markers, he escorted me all the way to the box. Was this foreshadowing? A minor blunder, I didn’t correct him; I prefer to positively reinforce his behavior when he does what I expect.
As I suspected, the mailbox is full. On the very top lies a mysterious envelope with all sorts of warnings. I can’t help but be intrigued. “Hand Cancel, Please.” “Fragile.” “Do Not Bend.” I make my way back through the snowy driveway anticipating ripping open that baby first and with abandon. Only I wouldn’t get to do that for three more days.
Continued: Part 2
On January 16, I turned fifty years old.