Birthday Hesitation

Pollen hubris, celebrations, Dave Grohl on loss, and yes, I've tried every ginger product there is.

Last month was my birthday month. My husband asked me on the weekend before the big day, “Do you want me to have some people over on Monday?” I quickly replied, “Ew, no, why?” before I realized it was my birthday.

I do not dislike my birthday or my friends. In fact, I am quite glad for another turn around the sun and very extroverted. But I have a bad habit of being sick on my birthday, making celebrations somewhat anticlimactic. 

It all started when I moved to the Washington, D.C. area more years ago than I’d like to admit. Coming from the South, I was at first shocked to find that my birthday in this new clime was cold. Early April is straight-up spring where I come from. Not so in the Mid-Atlantic, where it often offers the very worst of two seasons. 

“Ah, it is both freezing and the air is debilitatingly full of pollen. At least the cherry blossoms are pretty!” (frigid wind blows cherry blossoms to the ground at your feet 3 seconds after they appear).

I had pollen hubris. I grew up in North Carolina and went to college in Georgia. I was nonetheless allergy-free, like some kind of superhero whose power is nostrils that are functional in all seasons. If I had survived that, what could possibly touch me? 

Nothing, as far as I was concerned. Which is why it took me a good 7-10 years to realize that the reason I ended up sick every single birthday was that my birthday was peak cherry blossom season, and the pollen of the Mid-Atlantic had finally, finally felled this valiant Southern superhero. The comedown was pretty ugly. My allergy symptoms were usually about 3-5 days of severe symptoms, usually culminating in flu-like exhaustion. I once ruined a surprise party because I was too sick to go out.

A surprise party is basically my fondest dream. The pollen stole it from me.

When I complained about this phenomenon online, an allergist on Twitter advised me to start a Zyrtec regimen two weeks before my birthday to be ready to party on the big day. To this day, that is the greatest recorded use of Twitter in the history of the medium.

It has allowed me to celebrate my birthday in relative comfort for a handful of years now. But this year, things got hectic, it was spring break, I was back in the South and flying on hubris’ wings. I did not regularly take my Zyrtec regimen. So, when I landed in our nation’s capital after a couple days back home, I was felled once again. There would be no gathering.

Which is fine. I have the lukewarmest of takes on birthdays. I like mine. I find it slightly odd when people don’t like their birthdays. But if I miss a few celebrations, not the end of the world. My husband does not care for his birthday. To be fair to him, it is in early January. I chastised him for not wanting a big deal made until, depleted by the celebratory requirements of an entire Christmas season, I bought him a new kitchen trash can with my 20% off Bed, Bath, & Beyond coupon, slapped a bow on it, and said, “Happy birthday? I am exhausted and this was all I could muster.” He understood and I newly understood his plight. To be fair to me, it was a Simple Human. Only the best!

Last year, I turned 40 at the height of pandemic paranoia. This was early days, full-on quarantine, nobody coming near my house. As milestone birthdays go, it wasn’t what I imagined, but we did what we could in 2020, huh? My husband refurbished my 2002 Honda Civic and had it sitting in the driveway ironically donning one of those giant bows from the Lexus commercials. (I’m willing to admit, on this occasion, he totally outdid me on gifts and juxtaposing these two occasions might not serve my reputation.) 

Unlike the Lexus commercials, this gift came with nostalgia galore and a $0 monthly payment. I promptly hopped in it and drove it, well, nowhere, just like the old days. Turns out, the height of lockdown was a lot like my aimless high school weekends in that way.

I guess the upside to a down birthday is that the next few weeks of April feel like a comeback once I get my feet under me again. I’m not exactly starting my year on a high note, but starting it with a trial isn’t so bad for helping you appreciate the good days ahead.

***

When I was 14, something very big happened on my birthday. Kurt Cobain died. I remember hearing the news— a breaking news flash from MTV news—while watching TV at my friend’s house. Incidentally, her house was also where I heard the news about Princess Di’s death, and where I first watched “Clueless” and flipped through a Delia’s catalog, so I guess it was just the place we did iconic 90s things.

I don’t remember specifics about how Cobain’s death affected me. It clearly had an impact, as I remember the moment I heard about it. I knew it was a sort of generational touchstone, even at the time. Before his death, Cobain was already an avatar of the rebellious rock spirit of the early 90s. I think I had a sense of lost potential, of songs we’d never hear. It might have been my first real encounter with the idea of suicide. I likely took in these thoughts for a moment and then went back to the shrugging invincibility of being a teenager. 

It’s been more than 25 years since that day, but Cobain’s bandmate Dave Grohl reflected on it this year in an interview with the BBC. More specifically, he reflected on the day after Cobain died.

“I didn’t really have a plan,” he said. “When everything’s sort of turned upside down and shaken up like that, you just wake up every day thinking ‘who am I, where am I, what am I doing?’… I remember the day after Kurt died, how strange it felt to wake up knowing he wasn’t with us anymore and that I had another day. Like, okay, so what am I going to do with today? I believe it was then that I started to realize, ‘Oh, okay, you have to do everything once again. Meaning like, I have to make a pot of coffee and this is my first pot of coffee since Kurt’s gone. I have to go upstairs and get dressed. This is the first thing I’ll wear since Kurt has been gone. It goes like that. I honestly don’t know what I did. It was months and months and months.”

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Grohl would give such a simple, beautiful expression of something so complex. It’s a songwriter’s verse on loss.

There is so much truth in his description of early grief. First, a confrontation with mortality. That leads to some very real existentialism. There’s gratitude and guilt that you’re the one still here. But the deep gratitude for your own life cannot translate into action right away. You’re thinking huge thoughts but you have to do very small things. Achingly small, simple things. Sometimes that’s all you’re capable of.

The gulf between those huge thoughts and tiny actions is uncomfortable, surreal, sometimes comical.

“I am contemplating my place in the universe, and how every part of my existence simultaneously means so much and nothing at all. I also need to wash my hair. But every time I wash my hair gets me closer to finishing the last bottle of shampoo my loved one ever used, and now we’re back to big, existential things, and we’re crying over a bottle of shampoo.” 

Wash, rinse, repeat.

***

I hate to belabor the comparison, but I do think coming out of the pandemic era, for some people, will be a lot like early grief. We’re all mourning something from the past year, whether it’s loss of a loved one, a job, a way of life, connection with our community, or a barbecue joint that didn’t make it through the lockdown. Some people processed it throughout the year and some are just starting.

Either way, we have to do everything once again. I often tell people who are in the midst of crisis, despite its terribly trite sound, that they literally have to put one foot in front of the other. Get out of bed, eat some protein, get outside once a day. Sometimes that’s all you can manage. 

But small things become full days and weeks and years of living. 

***

If you’ve stuck around this long, I’ll tell you a secret. I wrote that about my birthday earlier in April, and I was fibbing a little about the reason for my sickness. My allergies did get me down, but that was on top of a little malady called Hyperemesis Gravidarum. It is more commonly known as “that thing Kate Middleton has that puts her in the hospital when she’s pregnant” or “that thing Amy Schumer had and made a documentary about.”

I have it, too. Of all the things I could have had in common with Kate Middleton, I really would have preferred the lustrous hair or impeccable style, but here we are with incessant puking caused by pregnancy. On the other hand, I have the luxury of wearing sweatpants and a NASCAR jacket to the kids’ soccer practice without the Queen getting mad at me.

So, the good news is we’re having a baby! Did I bury the lede? I did. At my ripe old age, this is indeed a huge blessing!

The bad news is I’ve been sort of sidelined from my own life for about a month while I get my treatment sorted out (weekly acupuncture + Bonjesta, for those who are curious) and remember how to function while very ill. About .5-2% of pregnant women suffer from hyperemesis. I’ve had it in varying degrees with all three kids, but this one is the hardest. I’ve been glad not to need hospitalization, but I have reached “the midwives say they can come to my house to IV me if need be.” Such service! 

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes it. There are theories— HCG, the pregnancy hormone, a lack of magnesium absorption, estrogen spikes. There are a slew of over the counter and prescription remedies. 

It feels like I’m just allergic to being pregnant. Or that I have about a 6-month hangover with no drinks preceding it.

I’ve never said much about it publicly before. I did a bunch of live appearances on “The O’Reilly Factor” back in 2013 with a garbage can sitting next to my seat. TV producers love that!

But this is a different pregnancy and I’m gonna do things differently this time, because why not?

On one hand, this is an odd pregnancy announcement. On the other, doesn’t every single woman in every movie and TV show reveal her pregnancy by running to the closest bathroom stall to upchuck?

So, in a way, this is a very glamorous announcement. I am the glitterati. The bedridden, green-faced glitterati. The girls (5 and 7) are very excited to be big sisters, and coming up with lists of weird baby names inspired by mediocre Netflix cartoons. My husband, Steve, has been taking care of me, and crafted a makeshift birthday cake of a Pop-Tart with a candle in it surrounded by Cheez-Its and Goldfish— the only foods I could come close to stomaching.

Now that I’m getting my feet under me while experiencing the miracle of life, I’ll be here more often! I’m cautiously optimistic it will get easier, as it has with both my other pregnancies. Thanks for your patience, and prayers are appreciated!