40 Years as a Stubborn Optimist

Today is my 40th birthday.  40 years ago, as family legend goes, my father was busy putting up a windmill on our farm with a few other men helping him.  My mother, rather pregnant, but not near her due date, came out to bring them some ice tea on that hot July day and casually mentioned that she’d gone into labor and the men comically scattered.  My father rushed her to the nearest hospital and I was born soon after, premature and tiny.  I was quickly rushed to a helicopter with my father trailing along behind, to be transported to a larger hospital with a NICU.  My mother had sent him while they cared for her.  She wound up requiring a hysterectomy.

My parents never spoke much about just how early I was or how long I really spent in the hospital.  They do talk about how my heart stopped twice on that helicopter ride, how I was given last rites on the way, and how they waited a month before letting my grandparents see me…even then they immediately began mourning, certain I would die.  I had already fought off death twice.  I did survive, coming home in doll clothes because there were no premie clothes then, with a scar on my head from where tubes had been inserted that I have to this day.  I was even part of a study the state sponsored to see what the long term outcome would be for babies as premature as I was, to determine if we would have the potential for normal lives after such a traumatic beginning…if it was ethical to save our lives or if it simply prolonged suffering.

This is how I came into the world, stubbornly clinging to life when my body really wasn’t developed enough to survive.

I did grow up and I’m about as tall as my family tree could hope for me to be.  I lagged behind on physical milestones, but I was always ahead on mental development milestones.  I was always a bit uncoordinated and not athletic and my immune system has often seemed wimpy, but it’s tough to know if any of that is the result of being born too early or just the luck of the draw.

Over the years, I’ve wondered at the deeper implications of my beginning.  At first, I wondered if I’d been meant to die.  Maybe I wasn’t meant for this world and I’d been snatched from my destiny?  When I learned about the idea of converts being born with Jewish souls from the beginning, I wondered if, perhaps, during one of those times when my heart stopped and I could have been dead…did my non-Jewish soul leave my body and a new one become placed there, a Jewish soul?  These are questions I’ll have to wait to ask one day, G-d willing, many years from now.

For now, it’s enough to know that I have had an amazing 40 years of life.  I’ve searched and wandered and had so many adventures.  I still can stare, wide-eyed in wonder at something new I’ve seen or learned.  I still approach life with curiosity and I love finding new corners to explore.  I’m still stubborn and while it can be frustrating at times, it’s definitely served me well when it comes to commitments.  I don’t give up on the people or things that are important to me.

I like to think that those very early experiences taught me that it does no good to dwell on what “should” be, but instead to simply choose to believe in what “could” be.  By all rights, I should have died.  The odds were definitely stacked high against my survival.  Happily, I was far too young to realize this and I was surrounded by people I’ll never know who were determined to help me fight those odds.  I lived because I had no way of knowing that I shouldn’t and I had optimistic medical professionals around me who were on my side.  As I grew up, I’d apply for scholarships for summer programs and anything else without even really considering if I was capable of winning them.  I didn’t stop to think of the odds against it, but filled out those applications, wrote those essays and sent them off…and I’ve done the same with job applications.  After all, if I don’t try, I’ll absolutely never win.

My mother once remarked that she was always amazed that I’ve never been afraid of heading off into the unknown.  I’ve packed my bags and flown off to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language or know anyone…multiple times.  Each time, it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a wonderful adventure or that I wouldn’t be able to figure out what I needed to in order to survive.  Each time, I’ve found what I needed and any hardships?  Those were just a part of the great adventure.  I would say it’s faith in Hashem, except perhaps it’s not always been a conscious faith.  I had this faith that things always work out as they should even before I could put a name to it, a faith that there is some kind of goodness in the world that means that things do work out as long as I do my part to help it.

Just as it doesn’t occur to me to be afraid or to let the odds against something slow me down, it also most often doesn’t occur to me that this kind of perspective is unusual.  I’m genuinely surprised when I encounter someone who doesn’t have this kind of faith.  I’ve often felt foreign even among friends because I do have such a different view of the world, but I can’t imagine wanting to live a life full of doubt, particularly if that doubt held me back from my next big adventure.  I’d rather simply leap, not knowing what waits, than be stuck questioning and doubting, paralyzed by fear.

40 years has taken me to places as far flung as Japan, Europe, Israel, and across the US.  I’ve seen some of the most beautiful things in nature and that man has created.  I’ve met so many interesting and intriguing people.  I’ve been privileged to partner in creation, bringing two new lives into this world and I’ve had the honor of helping them begin their adventures in this world.  I’ve loved intensely and fiercely, hurt deeply, and learned so much.

I can’t say I could wish for much more, but I was so happy to say Modeh Ani this morning because I really am curious about what the next chapter in my life will be.

The one thing I do know is that I’m here for some reason, because I can’t really explain why I was able to escape death so close and sure otherwise even as I tried to take my first breaths.  Where I once wondered if my life was a mistake, I now see that it’s anything but a mistake.  Whatever I’m here to do, it must be so important that I was allowed to beat those odds and it must be that I’m not yet finished because I’m still here and still breathing.

Baruch Hashem…what a privilege it is.


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