My partner Sarah’s just had a birthday, one due to be spent doing something she loves, being out in her beloved sea kayak off the coast of Wales. Well as you’ll read, that didn’t happen. Instead she spent two happily quiet days walking on a beach, gardening and reflecting on life and death.
‘The fact that I work with death informs me with an urgency and impatience which does not compel me to rush, it compels me to slow down – even more. To be happier with less. Not more.’
A birthday reflection. By understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to appreciate fully the meaning of this life – which is unrepeatable and so to be treasured above all else.
If I were to simply share this photo then the viewer might (correctly) assume that I had been to a beach for my birthday. And yes, that it true, but – for me – it doesn’t fully tell the story behind the photo and also the reflections that birthdays bring.
Since I have known Ronnie (a long time now) he has always made a special effort to mark my birthday – his first present to me was a flying lesson, something I had long dreamed of, his gift to me was to make that dream come true. And his presents have sometimes been ‘things’ that I have wanted, but many have often been ‘time’ too. So we have spent very memorable times together in many magical places, I immediately remember Dublin, West Cork – the magical garden at Ilnacullin (paradise), Llanddwyn Island, the Hebrides and Benmore Botanic Gardens….
In recent years I have found sea kayaking, which makes me happy, and the last two years on my birthday have been spent doing that. I make regular trips kayaking, my last trip was a few weeks ago – me and my coach Geth explored the limestone coast around Penmon and also a trip up the Cymyran Estuary.
This year before I had made any plans for my birthday Geth asked me to be the assistant coach for a group of adult novices on the day before my birthday, down in Barmouth in Wales, in the Mawddach estuary. I was looking forward to doing this, so me and Geth then made plans for me to stay in Anglesey and spend the next day – my birthday – on the water. All good.
And so I didn’t make any other plans for my birthday – I didn’t need to. I would be out on the water. The week before my trip the west coast of Britain and Ireland was battered by storms and high winds. I checked the forecast daily which indicated that this would continue right through to the weekend – and the Mawddach estuary wasn’t a place to be. It looked like our plans would be cancelled. Sometimes this is the way with kayaking – it’s better to be safe. It happened in May 2017 when a Force 7 blew up for my kayaking trip. And I reflected then, “A reminder that life doesn’t always go as planned, especially when we are living with nature, tides, and the natural cycles of life and death. This I know,”
But it was a mixture of disappointment and joy when on Saturday the trip was definitely cancelled. So no time for me to have arranged anything else. And I felt disappointment not to be doing the trip, but joy for having two days to myself. Two whole days. Ronnie was already working one day and starting his lectures at university the next – so the days were mine alone.
Both days are spent alone.
One day is spent on Shell Island near Harlech, not that far from the Mawddach estuary, and it is windy, very windy. I am enjoying my increasing knowledge of seashores, looking forward to more studying this month in Pembrokeshire.
The other day is spent gently gardening at Plot 44. I am happy.
Birthdays are complicated for me. I have not felt any triumph at arriving at a year older – and this is especially so since my breast cancer diagnosis in 2007, which gratefully is diminishing now into ‘over a decade ago’. But birthdays remind me of what I lost. In 2016 I wrote:
‘Peace. Happiness. These are simple enough wishes and expectations, but sometimes I struggle to find them. I have just turned 53, which means it is ten years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then spent several years having surgery and treatment, years I now think of as ‘missing’ as I don’t feel like I am 53. The shadows of that time linger. The birthday reminds me.’
Ronnie has observed that my sea kayaking adventure is me making up for lost time. I think this is true, time lost that can never be recovered, but also I am aware that I am getting older. Things that I am able to do now, I won’t be able to physically do forever.
I am now 55. I find myself reflecting that if I were to live to 85 – that’s a big ‘if’ – then that’s ‘only’ another 30 years. And given the speed that last ten have gone by, well, that’s hardly any time at all.
This year I have taken two funerals for people I’ve known and worked with. One young – age 31, and one older, but still ‘only’ in his 70s. They are challenges, yet at the same time privileges. And they are reminders too. They remind me that life is short. And I am fully aware of that.
The fact that I work with death informs me with an urgency and impatience which does not compel me to rush, it compels me to slow down – even more. To be happier with less. Not more.
To shift and sift out the unnecessary. In everything I do. And I am happier for it. The crossing over of 50 was significant, and although I am well beyond that I feel it more keenly as a colleague has just crossed it. I put some quotes together for his birthday card. This is my favourite, and his too:
The older I get, the more I see there are these crevices in life where things fall in and you just can’t reach them to pull them back out. So you can sit next to them and weep or you can get up and move forward. You have to stop worrying about who’s not here and start worrying about who is. – Alex Witchel
Happy Birthday. Life is short.
(Thanks to Geth Roberts for the photos of me kayaking).
More from Sarah about sea kayaking and reflections on life at ‘Letters From Sarah.’