Birthdays. They can bring up a lot. The reactions that they pull vary: excitement, joy, celebration, dread, shame. The passage of time, marked by the number of our age, can stir something deep. Reflection. Regret. Resolve.
Today is mine.
I am thirty five. (If you wanted to know badly enough, I’m confident that Google could do a deep mining of creepy data and dates to deliver enough personal information sufficient for you to do the calculation. I’ll save you the time. Your minutes are precious.) Truthfully, I’m really thankful I get to say I’m thirty-five. I actually really bristle against at the cultural nonsense – particularly for females – that numbers shouldn’t be spoken after a certain point. Who decided aging was something to be avoided, anyway?
What if your life had actually been cut short at 28?
Stop dead in your tracks and think about that for a hot second.
I will not pretend that I am not human. A human who happens to be female. One of my deadly sins is vanity. It is a silly charade to say that we all wake up and want to throw a parade for silver strands of hair or smile lines. That’s my stuff. That’s most people’s stuff. But please, let’s set it aside long enough to really recognize that every single year we get to walk on this planet is a gift.
It’s time to get excited about what we each get to unbox this year (even if the year is the crazy twilightzone of twenty-twenty).
I’ve always believed that birthdays should be just as much—if not more—about mothers, than they are the tiny people who suddenly showed up in the world. On this day in 1985, it was my mom who did the work. My birth occurred only after she spent the day driving tractor in a field helping my dad plant corn on our family farm in Minnesota.
When I have asked my mom about the most frightening moments of her parenting life, she tells this story. I was a baby having my nappie changed. In my hand was a cylinder of cinnamon to occupy me and help keep me from squirming and falling during the process. Being the fiery, determined little girl I was, I managed to summon the strength to pull the top off. Cinnamon filled my eyes. We don’t know who was more frightened: her or me. She heard her child scream in a way that had not hit her ears ever before. I don’t think about this story a lot, but when I bring it to mind, I am grateful in a deep place that I’ve been able to walk all of my days on this earth with the ability to see the world around me every single day. What a tremendous gift.
My mother also has a vivid memory of a pretty hard parenting time that occurred later in our life: the night her baby girl brought into the universe two of very her own. In October 2017, my two predicted-to-be present-shaking Christmas twins made a bold, colorful entrance into the world. I never read the book, but I’m quite certain that there was nothing in the pages of “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” that could have prepared me for their birth. My last memories include a death grip on my favorite nurse’s hand, writhing in pain, feeling the ice-cold sensation of an IV in my arm, and having a mask placed over my face as I screamed and pleaded to have my husband allowed in the OR so that he could witness the delivery of his babies rather than sit alone in the adjacent room. I have been told that after the babies were born, I asked someone to ring my mom so that I could talk to her, even though my voice was weak. I have no recollection of our discussion.
The next memory that I can bring to mind with any sort of fuzzy focus, involves waking up on a ventilator in the ICU days later. It was a bit like the movies. I was awake but couldn’t move, blink, talk, or get anyone’s attention. For hours. The thirstiest hours of my human life. I seriously would have paid any price for a Dixie cup of water to quell the overwhelming internal drought my mouth was registering and screaming to my brain.
My first conversation after coming off of the vent was with my husband. I heard and started to register the words he was speaking. He explained after an emergency c-section, I began to hemorrhage severely. I was rushed back to the OR. I had over 40 units of blood transfused. My husband has later explained that when the surgeon came to speak with him in the middle of the operation, he has never seen such fear or sadness in a physician’s eyes. Philip sat in the NICU between two plastic boxes and began to psychologically prepare for the very real possibility that he would leave the hospital with two babies and no wife. Where would I be buried? How exactly does one go about feeding two infants without their mother?
I laid in the ICU and learned at age thirty two–in a Hail Mary attempt to keep me alive and stop the profuse and unrelenting bleeding–my uterus had been removed from my body. I was done having babies, but I got to hold on to my life so that I could witness two little miracles walk, run, and sprint the days of theirs. I asked about the babies. What were their APGAR scores? Did anyone have pictures? I asked about my patients, knowing with sharp clarity exactly who had been on my schedule, when.
I’m glad we got the cinnamon flushed from my eyes in infancy. I’m grateful that a skilled physician made the call to give a young woman an emergency hysterectomy in the moment he did.
Even prior to this experience, I was no stranger to the true fleeting, fragile, and unpromised existence that is our life. In 2013, I stood emotionally and physically frozen in the sharp frigid blare of January. The sun was glaring in my eyes, but I couldn’t feel my cold feet in my heels that were planted on the hard ground of the cemetery of the United States Air Force Academy. I witnessed a woman my age watch her husband’s flag-wrapped casket disappear into the ground. I was swallowed with sorrow. I found myself suddenly holding complex sense of survivor’s guilt.
I had my husband’s hand. She had her husband’s flag.
Days earlier, my husband had accompanied the casket holding Dave’s body, and his grieving widow Dana, back from Afghanistan in the back of a C-17.
Dave was 28.
Following the funeral, my husband flew back to Afghanistan. Dana did not. Instead, she was forced to play her new part in a hellacious horror film in which no young wife ever would wish to be cast. My better half and I were painfully aware how easily the roles could have been reversed. Our stories could have been swapped. We were multiple deployments into our married military career. This was not our first dance with death. We knew with crystal clarity that we were a couple living Bonus Rounds.
After my medical debacle, I shared with a friend that, truthfully, life in the “after” didn’t look markedly different than before. I had done a lot of work in myself to ensure that my life was aligned to my professed values far before I ever experienced my first brush with the brevity of life.
I sometimes will pose a question to clients and query whether they would be doing anything different if they knew they were living on borrowed time. When they answer in the affirmative, I follow with a challenge to ruthlessly audit their lives and recalibrate accordingly.
There is power that exists when you approach your life as though you have little to lose by pursuing what is in your heart with reckless abandon. You show up in the world bolder, fiercer, more unapologetic. You act with more courage, clarity and intention. You live a life like you’re not wanting to leave it with regret. You leave less unspoken.
I don’t believe in playing it safe, scared, and staying close to the shore. Forget the shallow. Forge the deep. Beautiful things exist there for those who have the courage to go where most fear to tread.
It’s my birthday. Today, and every day, I am deeply humbled and my heart is truly grateful for the everyday extraordinary. As I celebrate, my 12,775th day getting to dance on this planet will likely look like most of my days. Not because of quarantine. Because I ask “why wait?” I step into each morning with a deep drive to make my time count. I am keenly aware that no future moment is promised to me.
This year for my pandemic party, I am inviting you. Whoever you are. Wherever you are.
I believe that if we don’t have the courage to ask, we often don’t get. In these wild times, I’m kicking off my first year in the roaring twenties requesting these gifts:
Author’s note: As a psychologist I put painstaking thought and consideration to my public-facing professional persona. It’s a complex thing, this work of being a shrink. Clinically, I have always erred on the side of less self disclosure than more, never wanting to crowd client space. When I share, I work to do so with tremendous care.
This piece. These words. These images. They’re not about me. They’re about you. Your life. Your business. Your family. Your choices. Your future.
I wrote these words in our birth announcement in 2017: In life, we don’t always choose our stories. Sometimes they choose us. It my heart to faithfully steward of the story entrusted to me.
My ultimate decision to begin to share my story more publicly this last year has come after time, space, and a tremendous amount of incredible support in processing and metabolizing the intensity of what I lived. I hope and pray in a deep place that if and when it has found you, that it simply sparks reflection that has the potential to ignite meaningful change for how you love, work, and live.
I frequently say to clients that the Dr. Lere who they engage with as a clinican is the exact same kind of person I am in all other spheres in my life. Joy as a psychologist is who I am as a friend, sister, supervisor, colleague, employee, daughter, mother, neighbor, and wife. The boundaries and dynamics are different in each relationship and role, but being a genuine, authentic person across the board in my life matters to me. This post is more personal than most. It is simply a slightly different camera angle capturing a picture of the girl I bring to all of the spaces I take up: a card-carrying member of the human race. A girl who seizes the short-notice opportunity to jump out of a plane simply because she has always wanted to. A girl who’s not afraid to sew a parachute on her way down, smiling and screaming with exhilaration and sheer joy all 10,000 feet.