Happy Birthday to Me

Posted by mwallach on September 14, 2012 in New Yorkers |

Dear That’s Life,
I have been convinced for years that my birthday brought with it very bad karma. If something bad didn’t occur on the actual date, it happened near or around it. This kept up for a while and culminated with the tragic events of 9/11. Although I knew none of this was actually about me, I could not help feeling I was the common denominator in each of these equations.

This year, however, was different. About two weeks ago, my friend Daniel with whom I share my birthday called with an idea. While he was turning 25, and although I was not, he proposed we do something positive in celebration of our special day. The Susan G. Komen Foundation’s 5K Walk/Run for the Cure in Central Park was taking place the morning of our birthday and what better way, he argued, for us to spend our day than by doing something like this. No convincing was necessary: I was in.

Called the “9/9 Birthday Bash,” Daniel organized our team on-line and we sent out emails asking for support. While my name might have been on the letter, it was Daniel who spearheaded the entire project. And within the short time span from the moment he had the idea until the morning of the race, close to $5,000 had been raised.

While assembling our own team that morning on Central Park West, and having never been there before, we were overwhelmed by the sea of people who had gathered, intent on participating as well. Many teams had their own shirts in memory or in honor of a loved one who served as their inspiration to lace up their sneakers and be part of something greater than themselves. We, too, filled out sheets of pink paper, and honored those who are close to our hearts and had either survived breast cancer, or had lost their battle.

One member of our team had stood by his wife as she battled, and beat, her breast cancer. He wrote her name down on the pink paper which said “In honor of,” adding the words, “I love you” right underneath. The enormity of that paper hit me, and my hands trembled a little as I pinned the paper to his back so that everyone could see it as we ran.

We split up into two groups: walkers and runners. With a birthday sign around my neck as I ran, many runners around me took the opportunity to wish me a “Happy Birthday” as we continued through the park. It felt great. It is one thing to celebrate with family and be surrounded by those you love on your special day. It is another thing altogether to do all of that and participate in something as proactive, inspirational and awesome as running to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research. Frankly, it does not get much better than that.

For Daniel, the day continued with a huge win by his beloved Jets. Arriving at Met Life Stadium in anything but his Jets jersey would never have occurred to Daniel, but this day was different. He went to the game in the shirt we had all received from the Susan G. Komen Foundation for participating in the race. Left and right as he walked to and from his seat, Daniel was thanked by complete strangers who had never seen him before, but were clearly close to someone who had suffered with the disease.

Speaking to him after the game, we both remarked what an incredible experience it had been and how we hoped to make it an annual tradition. I took that opportunity to thank him as well, for had he not seen the ad for the race on a bus and taken the initiative to set up our team, none of us would have been there. While efforts such as these are always about the team, every team also needs a leader – and for us, that was Daniel.

Just a few days later, I was able to say thank you again to someone who sincerely deserved it and thought about others before thinking about himself.

I was in Lower Manhattan Tuesday afternoon, long after the 9/11 memorials and ceremonies were over. Driving down the West Side Highway was a solemn experience though the crowds were long gone and the bagpipes all put away. Nevertheless, I took pause as I drove past the Freedom Tower, still in a semi-state of disbelief that they have to be built in the first place. It seems like only yesterday that the Twin Towers were part of that majestic skyline and yet we all remember where we stood when we learned that they were no more.

After parking my car and before heading into work, I went to the corner bodega for a cup of coffee. As I walked in, I noticed a fireman in his dress uniform, taking money out of the ATM located in the store. A member of Engine 14, I had never seen him before in my life but I caught his eye and he caught mine. While I would have otherwise smiled and walked on, I could not let the opportunity pass.

“Thank you,” I said to him, a warm but saddened smile on my face, appreciating the magnitude of the day and the recognition that a simple ‘thank you’ can give. He smiled back the same way. “You’re welcome,” he said, and proceeded out of the store. And just like that, I had shared an intimate and personal moment with a complete stranger, the same way my birthday had been intimate and personal with many others whom I did not know.

And while I am not exactly sure what to make of it all, I am beginning to believe that maybe my birthday may not be doomed after all.

As Seen in the South Shore Standard Sept ’12

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