Intimations of Mortality on my Birthday

I rattled through another birthday this last week. Thanks to Facebook, which celebrated its tenth birthday on my 59th, I received greetings from several hundred people scattered hither and yon across the planet. Facebook is many things—mostly good—but for me the best of it is the birthday list, one of the great inventions of the electronic revolution. In the old days I knew fewer than ten birthdays, and managed to miss even some of them. Now, if I only check the FB list in the morning, I can reach out to all of my friends on their birthdays. And even though we all know that it is Big Brother Zuckerberg rather than our innate thoughtfulness that makes this happen, the simple fact is that nobody is sorry to be remembered on her or his birthday. If you stripped Facebook of cat photos (cat seeming to play a piano, cat seeming to watch Kardashians) and extremist political "memes," and preachy New Age maxims ("Reach for the Sky, Not the Pie"), there would be very little left. I like to think of Facebook as a Birthday App for approximately a seventh of the world population.

My birthday was a little somber. One of my closest friends died a week ago in Reno, Nevada, and I could not (can not) get her out of my mind. She was just 67 years old. Then came the news that one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died of a drug overdose in New York City at the age of 46. To top it off, I had to go see my doctor in Bismarck on my birthday.

A week ago in Dickinson, as I was about to get into my car, parked on a hill, while carrying a heavy bag, and talking on the phone, I slipped on some ice. My feet did that cartoon thing at 650 rpms, but I could not regain my footing (hill, heavy bag). As I went down I reached out to steady myself on the trunk of my car with my right arm (mistake). Then I felt that horrible sickening moment when the whole weight of your body forces your skeleton and musculature to bend in a direction they were not designed to bend, and you realize that not even the instant intense pain is a sufficient measure of how badly you have dinged your body. It would have been better just to have fallen. In retrospect, I'm surprised that my arm didn't just wrench right off like a turkey wishbone. It was ten below.

For the next few days I actually had to use my left arm to position my right arm—on the steering wheel, at the j-k-l-; position on the keyboard, on the shower spigot. My right arm was essentially inert, as if a very large bent summer sausage were attached to my right shoulder by a piece of baling wire, but with workable fingers at the end of it. If I kept the arm tucked right into my ribcage the pain subsided mostly, but when I screwed up my courage to move the arm, some structural things in my shoulder snapped and tripped and at a certain angle the pain went straight through the roof. It was not very easy to sleep. If I rolled wrong in the night, the pain was such that I actually shot out of the bed like a middle aged rocket. At one point I contemplated learning to write with my left hand. It could not have hurt more if I had gnawed it off like a beaver in a trap.

I'm not much of a doctor sort of guy. I've only spent two nights in the hospital in my life, long ago in my childhood. But at some point in the last week I decided I am going to need my shoulder and right arm, so I got an appointment to see my doctor, a really wonderful man whose care I would hate to lose (are you listening Obama?!) By the iron law of automobile breakdowns and health problems, my shoulder was doing pretty well when he poked and prodded, and he concluded that I didn't need an x-ray and certainly not an MRI. He's one of those knuckleheads who believes in human health more than industrial medicine. I told him it was my birthday and I what I really wanted was a doctor like Michael Jackson's or Rush Limbaugh's, who would prescribe a range of miracle pharmaceuticals (up, down, sleep, ecstasy, mellow, alert, numb, lobotomic), particularly that thing they give you at the colonoscopy where you are not even sure that it occurred afterward. He suggested asprin. He wouldn't even give me a prescription for sleeping pills. Like my friends at Fox, I'm just going to blame Obamacare for everything.

I went to the drug store to get the one thing he prescribed for me. It would be about half an hour, they said. So I decided to spend a part of my birthday working every aisle of the store. I have the following report.

One. Never go to a drug store on your birthday. You cannot work the aisles without a very lively sense of your mortality. The shelves are chock full of things that remind you of how much can go wrong with your body: bandages, trusses, knee braces, adult diapers, pain creams, rubber sheets, heating pads, cooling pads, enema bags, collapsible canes, black eye patches, hemorrhoid donuts, toilet seat extenders, and ten thousand potions that either retain or eliminate your bodily wastes, at any rate of disposal you can imagine.

Two. For the first hour I watched an octogenarian try to find the right replacement battery for his hearing aid. It seems cruel that the labeling on these batteries is in the tiniest possible typeface, and that the invisible etching makes it virtually impossible to tell the difference between identical battery X and identical battery Y even when you are young and eagle-eyed. Nobody helped the elderly man, of course, and if they had tried—well, he wouldn't be able to hear them until he installed a new battery in his hearing aid.

Three. I believe the word "relief" is the commonest word in the store. Pain relief. Bowel relief. Pressure relief. Anxiety relief.

Four. Let me now praise capitalism. How many types of painkiller do we really need? Two bursting aisles? How many varieties of vitamins—a version for every orifice? How many types of shampoo, hand cream, hair dye, lipstick, deodorant, or hair spray does a free society want or need? There are, I discovered in hour two, several dozen varieties of condom—comfort, size, fit, color, aroma, ribbing, duration. How would one ever be able to choose?

Five. I'm happy to report that you can still buy a Vegematic in America, and a device to make boiled eggs without those pesky shells, and an electric mold for the perfect Taco salad shell.

My co-pay was so high that I could have ditched the medicine and bought each of the 234,000 Valentine cards in the store, and every bag of stale pistachios.

Ah, birthday memories. I blame you know who.