Into the dark


You say it’s your birthday!

You say it’s your birthday!

It’s my birthday. I was born to Mary Ann and Robert Burghart on March 28, 1962. Forty-nine, for those who can’t do the math. I don’t typically think of birthdays as opportunities for soul filleting, but this one was different. There are a couple of factors to this—a romantic head-on and hand surgery—that caused an intersection of several of my and humanity’s worst fears on my “special” day.

Birthdays past the age of 35 or so have been pretty meaningless to me. I’ve never really advanced past the emotional and mental age of 17 or so, so they always seemed kind of anachronistic. My son’s birthdays are more important to me these days.

But this year. This year.

This freaking hand surgery turned out to be a life-changing event. I’ll say it: In the days leading up to getting my right pinkie straightened out, all I could think about was what if something went wrong while I was under sedation. People die on the operating table every day. As much as I like to deny it, there’s nothing special about me, and one of these days, I’m going into the dark. I scheduled the surgery for when my son, Hunter, was at his mom’s house. I did not want him waiting alone after school while I cooled off on some gurney somewhere. I scheduled a colleague to teach my class that day. I prepared my class, in case some new lecturer had to take over (half in jest, wholly in earnest). I scheduled time off, both before the surgery so I could work on some things with two hands, and after, for recovery.

I even took some gifts to friends. I didn’t say, “This is so you’ll have something to remember me by if I die,” but I was thinking it. I went to my love and tried to make amends, even though I couldn’t tell her what was really on my mind—that I did not want to die without her knowing my feelings. She was kind enough to make sure I wasn’t alone in the nights before and after I went under the knife.

I also made arrangements for the 24 hours after the surgery, optimistically planning on survival. My friends turned out, as I mentioned in earlier columns, kindly driving me to the surgery center, bringing me home, then watching me in shifts.

Since then, pain. I can take a little pain—emotional, physical—in fact, sometimes I like a little. I quit taking the Darvocet two days after surgery. But in hand surgery, the pain actually increases as the nerves heal or get over their shock or whatever it is they do. And eventually, the pain and lack of sleep tore down my defenses, exposing raw emotional nerve endings that seemed to increase in urgency as the physical ones healed. I felt like I’d come undone, allowing whatever forces were buffeting me to take control. Of course, alcohol could momentarily fill those holes and soothe those nerves. I honestly don’t quite know what to make of the connection between the physical and spiritual rawness. Nothing ever prepared me for it, and I’ve had serious injuries before. But it’s a clear window into the future, and I understand why old people can be crotchety.

That’s where the birthday comes back into it. When I was young, birthdays were events of increasing power—learning, physical size and prowess, skills. Every tick forward of the year meant new challenges of finance, romance, and future-building. And then something happens. About the time the clock tolls noon in a person’s life, the annual sweeps of the second hand do a 180. The clock starts ticking backward. It’s no longer tracking the forward motion of the seasons of my life, but it’s now a countdown. And the birthdays, instead of being symbols for the length of a life, become hash marks for its brevity.