Twelve years ago today, I went through what I thought at the time was the experience that would bring me closest to what my own and birth and death would feel like: I gave birth to Young J. It was my first birth, and it was anomalous (I wandered around for a full week ready to deliver but not quite in actual labor, before my OB finally decided, “we need to finish this”). Once labor started, it was very fast indeed: three hours start to end. Because I missed the boat on an epidural, I was lucky to have a very good nurse coach me through it, one who eventually would be one of my midwives when I had Young A.
Today, Young J is taller than some short adults. He is handsome, funny, and smart. Although he has only been playing drums for a year, he shows great promise, and is more engaged by drumming than by any other instrument he has played. He was also a prime motivator during the upheaval of our move this summer. Unlike his younger brother, who is a city boy through and through, Young J had expressed longings for a quieter, more bucolic life since his earliest days. Our visits to family in the suburb we now inhabit were rapturous — he called it “the country.” He enjoys the lack of frequent sirens, having a yard, and being able to ride his bike around the block without supervision or the sense of imminent death.
When he began the year at his new school, Young J was excited about learning French (which wasn’t offered at his old school), and joining the band. While French has been a delight for him (oh, to be a fly on the wall this morning, when his class sang him a bonne anniversaire!), band was an unexpected mountain to be scaled. Young J had to relearn how to read music, something he hadn’t banked on since he chose percussion. But percussion includes bells and xylophone and any number of other instruments whose notes aren’t expressed on the page by x’s. He panicked after the first week or two, especially after one embarrassing day when he was laughed at by the rest of the band for not knowing how to read music. While we were on the road for Rosh Hashanah he decided it was too much stress and that he’d need to drop band. The plan was to have him take a year of private lessons, relearn how to read music, and try again next year for band.
Then he got back to school, saw his guidance counselor, and learned that he’d need to change his entire schedule around if he dropped out of band. And he liked all of his other classes. That night, we went to the music store, rented a bells kit, and music boot camp began. There was a quantity of wailing, tears, and gnashing of teeth (some of it ours).
That was September. In mid-November, I went to meet teachers for conferences. I approached the table where the band director was sitting and introduced myself as Young J’s mom. I got to see the band director’s face light up like a 150-watt bulb when I did. Not only had Young J been holding his own, he had risen above and rapidly become one of the most valuable members of the band, which has seventy students in it. His lessons have taught him technical things which he then shares with his section-mates. He doesn’t goof around in the back of the room, like some of the other kids in percussion. And, he identifies so strongly with his section that he’s inviting all of them to his birthday party… even though one of them is a girl.
Young J has been teaching us for quite some time now, but it always thrills me to see what else I learn from him. In spite of all the medical drama I have experienced in the past five years, I still maintain that giving birth was more transformative, in terms of physical and spiritual experience. In my continuing refusal to let cancer have the last word, I don’t even rank it at any level close to the birthing experience. Certainly my illness has changed me in other ways. It has sharpened my sense of irony and outrage, but I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings about it. I don’t even own a sense of pride in how I have dealt with it — I continue to maintain that the cancer patient outsources everything about their disease to professionals, save the way they react to it. (Although therapists can — or should — play a role there.)
Thanks, Young J — for being the one to make an impact on my life that even cancer could not cancel out. I hope I can keep my sneaky fucking disease at bay long enough to see you grown and flown, bringing the light of your smile and the truth of your rhythms to the world. Happy birthday!