Yesterday was my birthday. My 56th birthday. And this is a big deal, even though it doesn’t have a zero at the end. Here’s why. Warning: this is going to get weird. But I can’t not write this post, for some reason.
There have been times in my life when I have known something. Something I had no way of knowing. Something I had no business knowing. And – most of the time – something I haven’t wanted to know.
Let me give you an example. One of the clearest examples from my life. One day, when I was at boarding school, our temporary matron walked past me and I knew she was about to die. Imminently. The certainty of her death settled over me like a thick, heavy, black blanket. Just a few hours later, an announcement was made that she had indeed died.
This is one example. There have been others – usually less dramatic than this, but still very unsettling. There is something very uncomfortable about saying something to a person that you think is obvious and well-known, only to have the person look at you in horror and/or mortification and gasp, “How could you possibly know that?”
Some people talk about being ‘a sensitive’. In the charismatic/pentecostal church the term is ‘word of knowledge’ and it is regarded as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There may be other terms in other faiths. I don’t know. I haven’t researched it. I don’t want to know. I recognise that you might be reading this thinking, I know what this is, and I could explain. Please don’t. I don’t want to know. It’s no gift at all.
Some people have identified this trait in me, and have encouraged me to develop it. After the death of the matron, I became quite hysterical, repeating over and over that I had known it was going to happen. Most of the girls just shrugged it off as attention-seeking on my part. There was, however, a pair of sisters at the school who practised some alternative belief system. I think it was spiritualism, but I couldn’t say for sure after all these years. They were overcome with excitement at the discovery of my ‘psychic ability’ and wanted more than anything to mentor me as I developed it. I didn’t want to develop it. I didn’t want a closer relationship with the sisters, who made me feel uncomfortable at a fundamental level. Years later, I would say ‘they made my spirit itch’. I didn’t want to know when random people were about to die.
About 10 years ago, I went to an osteopath, expecting to have my skeleton realigned. The very first words the man said to me when he walked into the waiting room were, “Oh good. You’re a sensitive.” He was appalled that I had no interest in discussing my aura or my chakras or any other invisible/intangible thing, and just wanted him to sort my back out. He kept trying to steer the conversation in that direction, until I snapped at him that I was paying £1 per minute of his time, and I’d like to choose how that time was spent. He more or less asked me never to come back. As if there was any danger that I would.
So… that’s the context.
One of the things I have known, is that I wouldn’t live past 55. I attended my father’s funeral in 1998. He had taken his own life at the age of 57. It wasn’t his first attempt. During his wake, I became aware of a certainty that I wouldn’t even live to see 57. And the knowledge felt old and familiar, even comfortable, like a pair of well-worn shoes. As if it had always been there, but I was just looking straight at it for the first time. 55. That was it. That number was as clear in my mind as if it had been posted on a billboard. That was all I was getting. The knowledge didn’t scare me. It was just…there.
Until yesterday, I had only shared that information with two people.
The first was a young man we fostered for a while. Things were beginning to go pear-shaped and we were having one of many arguments. He made a comment about not living to a ripe old age, and I snapped out my certainty that I wouldn’t see my 56th birthday.
The second was much more recently. I was speaking to one of my oldest, dearest friends who knows me and my baggage well, and who also happens to be a doctor. I was discussing my chronic pain condition with her, and raised the possibility that this would be what finished me off, since I knew I wouldn’t see my 56th birthday, and that day was closing in apace.
I had never told another living soul. Not my husband, not my kids, not my Mom. Yesterday I did tell Mr Namasi. But you’re the fourth person to know this weird secret I’ve been keeping.
As you can imagine, as I neared 55, any condition that arose (including my bouts of depression and the attendant suicidal thoughts) would have me wondering whether this was the thing that would do me in. A cluster of cells in my breast? Oh, perhaps I’m going to die of breast cancer. Post menopausal bleeding? Ah, perhaps it will be cervical cancer. Unspeakable chest pain? Hmm… perhaps it will be a heart attack. And not in any hypochondriac way, either. There was always an element of academic interest, like watching something under a microscope and being interested in the developments.
And then I turned 56.
And the thing that I knew – the bedrock, familiar truth that has always been there – turns out not to be real after all.
It raises a delicious uncertainty. I have now entered into a period of life I never foresaw. I can plan a trip to South Africa for my mother’s 80th next December. I can start thinking about Mr Namasi’s 60th birthday. I might live to have grandchildren, after all. I might get to be mother of the groom. Maybe even twice! I might get to share my husband’s retirement years with him.
And perhaps some of the other things I know are also not true. Perhaps I have unwrapped the ‘gift’ and found an empty box.
I’m in uncharted waters. The next landmark comes on 1 June 2020, when I become older than my Dad ever lived to be.
Will you keep me company as I find out how that feels?