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Turning 50. Turning 90.

With my mom at my first book signing, 2011.

With my mom Char at my first book signing, 2011.

Turning 50 is a milestone. So are the ages 1 and 6 and 100 and every year in between.  On August 20, I celebrated my pivotal half-century mark with my mom Charlotte. She will be 90 in October.

Normally we would go out to lunch on my birthday, maybe enjoy French onion soup at  La Bonne Bouchee and splurge on a chocolate eclair.  But this 50th celebration is different. On my 50th birthday we sit in the waiting room at the oncologist’s office. We try to distract ourselves by watching Wendy Williams interview the perky Kristin Chenoweth on a small television screen that is mounted to the ceiling. Today, on my birthday, we find out the results of my mom’s bone marrow biopsy. It’s been a rough six months, dealing with a lot of health issues in my family. We are both worn out and tired, wearing stylish capris and bright blue blouses. After all, it’s my 50th birthday.

My mom keeps apologizing, “I’m so sorry you have to be here on your birthday, El.” Her watery eyes are puffy and red. But I don’t need a pity party. She gave me a beautiful Hallmark card decorated with two pink rhinestones that she bought last month and waited until today, my birthday, to present it to me. She always buys the perfect birthday and anniversary cards early and stocks them in her top dresser drawer. She signed this one, “Thanks for all your love and caring” in scribbly handwriting. Her cursive used to be exquisite, but now the pen shakes in her hand. She has trouble writing and putting on mascara.

Taking care of my mom, not to mention the needs of my own family, has consumed me lately. Welcome to the sandwich generation.  So I made sure to do something fun to commemorate my initiation to the 5-0 club.  This morning I treated myself to a facial, and the weekend before I celebrated my birthday with a college friend in New York City. We had a blast seeing the Broadway musical Newsies, eating our way through the cafes along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, and, best of all, I got a sassy new hair cut and color at my friend’s salon. Before the trip, my mom  handed me a wad of cash and told me to go on a shopping spree. I always do what she says. Her face lit up when I showed her my new Havana jeans, Kate Spade wallet, zippered jacket, and a black sequent dress that were among my many purchases.

Today is my birthday, but it’s not about me. It’s about the woman who gave me my first birthday. I am here for her, holding her thin frail hand dotted with brown spots from years of sunbathing. She is self-conscious about her paper-thin skin, now covered in dark purple bruises from years of aspirin and a recent blood transfusion to treat her anemia. Still, she gets so many complements on her stunning long acrylic fingernails painted with her favorite color “Peace, Love and OP!.”

My mom never looked her age, until now, but she never dresses frumpy. I rarely turn down jewelry, purses, or barely worn sandals that she offers me when she wants to clean out her wardrobe closet.

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On my 40th.

Yes, it’s my birthday, and my gift is to be here with my mom. I’m truly grateful to be with the woman whom I share a love for Sees candy, Chico’s clothing sales, Florida vacations, The Emmys, and a cup of hot jasmine tea.

The nurse calls her name, Charlotte Grossman, and we walk down the hallway past the patients wearing headscarves and shunts. She steps on the scale, and it shows she lost another two pounds. How is it possible when her appetite has improved and no dinner is complete without Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream?  We take a seat in the exam room, and I pull out a mini black spiral notebook that I keep in my purse when I interview people for stories.

Blood pressure, temp, all normal. Then the doctor dressed in a business suit and quirky smile walks in and shakes our hand, as usual. He acts like he’s meeting us for the first time. He is a brilliant man, comes highly recommended, even if he talks over our head. He rambles something about CML, which stands for chronic myelogenous leukemia.

I continue to take notes, scrawling words like “chromosomes” and “molecular” and “hemoglobin”… “remission” and “shortness of breath” and “bone marrow” and “DNA.” When I ask about milligrams, and  low platelets, and white blood cells counts, I feel like a grade school kid annoying the teacher with a stupid question.

We’ve been down this road before. My mom was actually diagnosed six years earlier with CML but was able to knock it into remission by taking a chemo pill. Around the same time, she was diagnosed with lymphoma, which is extremely rare for a patient to have both cancers at the same time, and survive, but that’s my mom, extremely rare. And she’s a survivor. She never told her friends or family about her original diagnosis, except my brother and I. She didn’t want anyone to worry about her.

Over the years, she’s overcome her share of health challenges—a salivary gland tumor, heart valve replacement, weak kidneys, and a few episodes of short-term depression that were probably worse than all the other diseases combined. I’m convinced that the stress of the most recent chemical imbalance in the brain is what woke up the dormant cancer cells, but then again I’m no doctor.

Through it all, she’s lived alone since 1978 when my dad died from mesothelioma that surfaced 30 years after his exposure to asbestos in Pearl Harbor. She was married to the only man she ever loved for 18 years. They never had a chance to celebrate their Emerald anniversary.  A few weeks ago we moved her out of the house she lived in for 53 years, on the same cul-de-sac my brother and I played four square on.  She now calls home a popular nearby independent living facility that provides all her meals, activities, transportation, laundry services, physical/occupational therapy, and companionship with many of her cronies. Actually, she doesn’t call it “home” yet, and she probably never will, even though she admits the food is delicious and bingo is not as bad as she thought.

Anyway, my mom has bounced back from every single one of her hardships and, most importantly, her life is not defined by any of them. Most of her 90 years have been happy, healthy, with a close-knit family and many long-time friends, who cherish her sweet personality and crunchy kamish bread.  I believe my dad is looking out for her, helping her get through these dark times. It’s not her time to go yet.  She has to stick around and watch her teenage grandchildren, Jack and Sari, grow up.

At the end of her appointment, the doctor gives my mom a new pill that will hopefully put her back in remission without major side effects, like filling up the lungs with fluid. The medicine costs $12,000 a month. Who can afford to get healthy without insurance?

So today I started a new decade. I spent my 50th birthday with my mom. She joined my family for a steak dinner at J. Gilberts, and she ordered me a special birthday dessert–rich fudge cake with homemade raspberry ice cream.

After the meal, we walked arm in arm in the parking lot as thunder and lightning cracked in the sky. She covered her freshly coiffed hair with a plastic rain bonnet that she always keeps in her purse, just in case.

Today I turned 50. And soon my mom will be 90.

Everyday is a gift.

Mom and family-Mother's Day 2010

Mother’s Day, 2010.