I spent my 40th birthday in a hospital bed. This was not the original plan.
The original plan was to throw a large party at the house, invite all our friends, spend more than we could afford, and sit by the fire late into the evening laughing and telling stories. That was the plan.
But the fever just wouldn’t break. My doctor ran some tests that revealed I had a bacterial infection in my bloodstream — one that would require around-the-clock IV antibiotic treatment.
I was admitted into the hospital on a Tuesday afternoon. My birthday was that Friday. Early on, my medical team held out hope that I might be released in time for the party. But the bacteria, which had done considerable damage to my heart, proved difficult to identify and, as a consequence, difficult to treat. So on Thursday afternoon, a man I had not yet met — a heart surgeon — told me I would need to stay through the weekend, and that in a month or so I would need to return for open-heart surgery.
For many of us, birthdays beckon a certain kind of lonesomeness. They invite introspection. We ask, am I still young? Is my life what I hoped it would be? Am I happy? With the passing of another year, it is easy to wander down into the willowy thickets of the heart and lose the trail.
While I usually deal well with birthdays, I wrestled with a sober, if arbitrary, pensiveness about turning forty. Call it the “halfway point” syndrome. That fight only intensified when the cardiology department announced the change of venue for my party by telling me that I was in the early stages of heart failure.
I remember feeling frail — which I was. I remember feeling lonely and sad about having to cancel the celebration. And I remember feeling afraid; drastic measures were coming my way.
One of the safety protocols hospitals take to ensure they treat the correct patient is they check the number on your ID bracelet against the number on their chart and then ask you to tell them your full name and date of birth before they do anything to you. So every time someone would come into my room to check on me, run a test, draw blood, change my IV, give me a painkiller, or even deliver a meal, they would ask for my name and birthday.
“Russell Brown Ramsey, five, seventeen, seventy three.” It became as automatic as hello.
Many friends came to visit on my birthday. They brought the party to me. They arrived bearing gifts. My children made cards and gave me some of their most prized stuffed animals, which I kept with me in the bed until my doctors sent me home.
But around the dinner hour, visitors stopped coming, Lisa and the kids went back to the house, and I found myself alone flipping through the channels as I waited for my Salisbury steak and vegetable medley to arrive.
It was a good birthday, I told myself. It’s okay. You’re going to be okay, I said, trying not to lose the trail.
There was a knock on my door. An older African American woman poked her head in and said, “I have your dinner.”
She walked over to my bed, set the tray down on the table beside me, looked at the number on my ID bracelet, and asked me for my name and date of birth.
“Russell Brown Ramsey, five, seventeen, seventy three,” I said.
She nodded, started to leave, and then stopped.
“Wait,” she said. “Today is your birthday?”
“It is,” I said.
She straightened herself up, turned to face me, and put her right hand over her left — a portrait of dignity and poise. And then, with just the two of us in the room, she began to sing over me.
“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Mr. Ramsey. Happy birthday to you.”
Then she smiled, turned, and left the room.
And I wept.
Often the best gifts we can give each other cost nothing.
This woman did not know me. She didn’t know if I was kind or mean, gentle or abrasive, honest or a liar. She didn’t need to know what I had accomplished in life or what I had wasted. She just knew that I was there in her hospital on my birthday. On that basis alone, I mattered to her. She became my physician. Her medicine was kindness and I felt its healing power. I feel it still.
All my questions about whether my life had measured up to my own expectations seemed to disappear when this woman I did not know took a moment out of her day to express, in such a simple yet intimate way, “I am happy you were born.”
In that moment I genuinely was too.
Russ Ramsey is a writer and pastor in Nashville. He is the author of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.