Rosalind Kaplan: “Return of the Day”

My birthday falls at the beginning of October, a time when the hot, damp, oppressive Philadelphia summer finally loosens its death grip on those of us who didn’t flee to the Jersey Shore. It’s great weather for a celebration, indoors or out. Time for a party, maybe. In adulthood, I continue to cling to a fantasy that my birthday will be special, a magical day set apart from all others. A day of attention to my deep-seated wishes—adoration from friends and family, pretty baubles wrapped in colorful paper and adorned with ribbon, and chocolate layer cake with cream-cheese icing.

In reality, I’ve never had such a birthday, at least not as an adult. Throughout my life, my birthday has frequently fallen on Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holiday of atonement. Until my religious inclinations diminished to nothing a few years ago, that meant a full day of synagogue, fasting, and beating my chest repeatedly—once for each of the many sins I’d committed in the previous year. I’ve also ruined a couple of my own birthdays by participating in early-autumn outdoor activities that led to injury. My forty-fifth birthday was spent completing the second day of a three-day, sixty-mile breast cancer walk. My family had intended to take me out to dinner that evening to celebrate, but I was exhausted and had blisters all over my feet, so I lay on the couch eating Chinese takeout instead. On my fifty-third birthday, I crashed my road bike in a cornfield during a ride through rural Pennsylvania, designed for relaxing and admiring the colorful fall foliage. Instead, my brakes failed on a steep downhill with slick pavement. After a few hours in the local ER, I went home with a sling and a bottle of Percocet for a separated shoulder.

Over the last two years, autumn COVID surges interfered with in-person birthday plans. My husband, Larry, set up a Zoom link, and my grown children logged in to sing “Happy Birthday. ”I gathered all the good cheer I could manage each time, wearing a cone-shaped cardboard hat and sticking a candle into a stale cupcake, but we were all pandemic-weary and Zoomed-out. It might have been better to skip the celebration entirely.

This year, despite relaxed COVID restrictions and the fact of Yom Kippur falling several days before my birthday, I did not look forward to October 6. Instead, it loomed unreasonably large and threatening in my mind. I was turning sixty-two. Several decades ago, my mother dropped dead at that age. No warning, no fatal diagnoses recorded on her medical chart. Ever since then, I have been unable to imagine myself older than sixty-two years.

I don’t believe I’m going to die this year. That’s not why I feel so unsettled, why I can’t fathom getting any older. I’m currently quite healthy. I exercise regularly and eat well. I’ve had my recommended cancer screenings and dental cleanings and COVID boosters. Unlike my mother, I pay attention to my stress level and try to keep it at a dull roar. Yet I’ve always looked to my mother’s life, what I know and remember of it, when imagining my future. How old was she when she got married? Had kids? Got her first gray hairs, entered menopause? In what ways were we alike, and how did we differ?

Throughout adulthood, I’ve pulled out memories of my mother, turned them over, mined them for clues, used them for illumination along the path of my future. But the memories end when she was just a few months into her sixty-third year of life. Now that I’ve entered my sixty-third year, there will be nothing more to compare and contrast. This is the point at which that particular flame flickers and goes dark, leaving me stumbling and staggering into my old age.

I may be overly optimistic, but I’m pretty sure that I’ll live to be old. I suppose it’s crucial for me to believe this, lest I give up on life, turning dying young into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This conviction, though, is complicated by survivor’s guilt. I can’t help but think about the unfairness of my mother’s early demise. She wasn’t done with her life’s work as a mother, a wife, a psychologist. In fact, she was a new grandmother to my son, her first grandchild, born just months before she died.

Of course, it makes no sense for me to harbor guilt; I’m a bit embarrassed to even admit that I do. What good would it do for me to die young? Certainly, my mother wouldn’t have wanted that, but such rational thinking doesn’t override what I feel. It seems wrong that I might enjoy retirement, my adult children, maybe even grandchildren, when she wasn’t able to do so.

Aware of all these difficult emotions around my sixty-second birthday, I let my husband know that I needed to find a way to celebrate this birthday, rather than fear it. Nothing big or loud, nothing fancy, and definitely no activities with high risk for injury. He planned dinner and game night at our home with just a few of our closest friends. I pointed out the chocolate cake with the cream-cheese icing at our favorite bakery, and he promised it as my birthday cake. I liked this idea; it was something I could look forward to.

The best-laid plans… Needless to say, I didn’t get the birthday I’d been hoping for. The day started well enough, sunny and bright after several days of rain. I did some errands, got my hair trimmed, and ate lunch with a friend. But at 3:00 P.M. , Larry came home early from work with a fever and a cough. He looked gray. Our first thought was COVID, but the rapid antigen test was negative, and he didn’t have the usual upper respiratory symptoms like congestion or sore throat. I grabbed my stethoscope and listened to his lungs. There was a gravelly sound in the right lower lung field.

We spent the rest of the day getting him a chest X-ray and picking up the antibiotics prescribed for his pneumonia. Dinner was grilled cheese and soup. Then I tucked him into bed and called our friends to cancel my party. There was no birthday cake, no candles. I watched a movie on Netflix while Larry slept, until our Internet router suddenly crashed. I was left in silence, wondering if this dumpster fire of a day was portentous.

So began my sixty-third year. In the morning, I did laundry, bought a new router, and fed cough suppressant to my husband. Over the next couple of days, he began to feel better, and I felt grateful. I realized I’d been holding my breath, worried that his pneumonia was the start of a catastrophic health problem. It turned out to be just a blip, and that was a gift. My birthday gift.

I still feel a little sad that I didn’t get a party with presents to unwrap and a cake with candles to blow out. But that’s the child in me talking. The grown-up part of me understands that another year of life, another 365 days of pleasures and calamities and absurdities and celebration, is a privilege. A privilege that not everyone gets.

I don’t have the memory of my mother at sixty-three as a blueprint for what this year will bring. I’ll have to muddle through on my own, but I think the years I’ve already had on earth will provide enough experience to get me through to the next birthday. Maybe then I’ll get that perfect day. Yeah, I can always dream.




Rosalind Kaplan has been published in several literary and medical journals, including Amarillo Bay, Annals of Internal Medicine, Another Chicago Magazine, Brandeis Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, HerSTRY, Minerva Rising, Open Arts Forum, Prompted, a Philadelphia Stories Anthology, The Pulse Magazine, Signal Mountain Review, The Smart Set, Stonecoast Review, and Sweet Tree. She is a physician and also teaches narrative medicine and medical memoir writing at Thomas Jefferson University/Sidney Kimmel Medical College. Dr. Kaplan is a 2020 graduate of Lesley University’s MFA in creative nonfiction, and she has attended a number of writing workshops. She lives with her husband and a rescue dog, and has two grown children.