December 1970 Across the Atlantic and half way across the Indian Ocean, in the heart of Sri Lanka, a young couple were looking forward to meeting their firstborn. Two sets of soon to be grandparents were also eagerly awaiting news of the arrival of their first grandchild. In those ancient days, one had to wait for the baby to be born to know whether it was a boy or girl. There were also no smart phones or even idiot phones with which to snap pictures of the new baby and transmit to family and friends around the world, eagerly awaiting good news. So 50 years ago when the couple welcomed a baby girl into the world, an uncle was dispatched by bus to give the news to the maternal grandmother.
December 1977 As a student of Mona Preparatory School, the same little girl who was turning 7 celebrated her first birthday in Jamaica. She was learning a new language, making new friends and learning new ways of doing things. As she missed her beloved grandmother on the other side of the world, the little girl never dreamed that she would continue to celebrate all remaining birthdays without that grandmother being physically present.
December 1994 The little girl was now an adult. She had learned to drive, voted in a general election in her adopted country Jamaica, and was on the last stretch of her medical school training. The 24th birthday was the last one she celebrated in the home where she grew up, with the parents who had so eagerly awaited her arrival that long ago day on the other side of the world. These parents were now older, grayer and perhaps not as eager to send their firstborn out into the world as they had been to welcome her into their family. They would have liked to hold on to the little girl a little longer, but alas time marches on with no regard for human emotions. At that same time her parents also celebrated 50th birthdays without fuss or fanfare, and it did not even register to the now adult daughter that a landmark birthday had come and gone for her parents.
December 1995 As a six month old intern at Mandeville Public Hospital the grown up young lady was enjoying her hard won independence and freedom away from her parents’ house and rules. She paid her own bills, drove her own car and came and went as she pleased. She was finally engaging in the practice of medicine, guided by her senior colleagues, the nurses and the patients she met and looked after. She made new friends, and tested boundaries, and found a voice in a place where she was known only as Dr Bandara, and not somebody’s daughter or sister. As she became part of the hospital community, her dream of being a country doctor was realised and she felt her life could not be better. Celebrating a twenty fifth birthday with a visit from one of her oldest friends bearing a gift of Godiva chocolates began another chapter of her journey and the fulfilment of dreams yet to be dreamed.
December 1996 The well seasoned intern set up and decorated her first Christmas tree purchased with her own money. It was the first of a Christmas tradition that lives on to this day. Much had changed in one year, and this year she celebrated her birthday with the love of her life. Looking back, it was one of the best birthdays of her life with just the right mix of youth and freedom with minimal responsibility to provide for others. It was a December spent meeting people who would eventually become part of her family, by marriage. By the time the year drew to a close, and the love of her life had to return to his overseas university, the couple had decided that they did not want to be apart any longer than necessary. Seismic changes were coming to the young lady’s life.
December 1997 The young woman bid goodbye to the beloved folks of Mandeville hospital: the doctors and nurses,the patients, the jelly coconut man, the porters she had come to know by name and the telephone operators. She cleared out her apartment and went back to Kingston to celebrate her birthday with her beloved husband and the two families that had merged with their marriage. Soon after that she moved with the aforementioned beloved husband to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the midst of winter to have her first experience of snow, and to begin yet another new chapter of her life as a new wife.
December 1999 It was the end of the first year back in Jamaica and the young lady now had a better appreciation of the joys and trials of married life combined with work. In the midst of the celebrations, a new life was created. Although she did not know it at the time, as the year and the century ended, the young lady had also celebrated her last child free birthday.
December 2000 A birthday to mark the third decade of life, with a 3 month old first-born and a life turned upside down in the way that the arrival of children will do. It was a time of incredible happiness and joy but also of untold exhaustion and plates of uneaten food. There was indescribable wonder at the beautiful new person she and her husband had brought into the world. But the young woman also felt great trepidation as she contemplated the task of raising that little person into a responsible adult.
December 2002 The young woman celebrated the completion of 32 years on this earth. She had been blessed with two beautiful daughters and motherhood was a journey she was now fully committed to. It was a month spent making infant friendly Christmas tree decorations, and she cannot even remember now if she had a cake for her birthday much less how she spent the actual day. It was a time of bustling and multi-tasking in true mummy style.
December 2005 This was a birthday drenched in gut-wrenching sadness and buckets of tears as her father battled terminal cancer. The side effects of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation left him struggling to swallow water. She put the doctor skills acquired in the past 10 years to good use by setting up a “drip” on her father at home, so that he would not have to spend Christmas in the hospital to treat his severe dehydration. It was a dark December as the concept of loss beyond description and measure became a tangible visible reality in the fading wasted frame of her father.
December 2006 The not so young woman was preparing to celebrate her first father-less birthday. After the darkness of the previous December, she felt the need to throw open windows, and open the curtains to let in the light. Thus began the practice of inviting friends and family to a birthday get together complete with a fancy birthday cake, lots of laughter and catching up with people that she had not seen in years. It was a tradition that continued for many years.
December 2014 After making plans to have a birth week celebration instead of confining the celebrations to a single day, the now middle aged woman made two important discoveries. Firstly she learned that she had too many loved ones to link up with to limit the celebration to a mere week. Secondly she discovered how to embrace the joy that is mindfulness…of being in the moment on purpose and with full attention. With age came gray hairs, wrinkles and varicose veins, but also some wisdom and the resolve to practice being mindful and grateful.
December 2018 A half empty nest marked this birth month celebration, as the older wiser woman prepared for the return of her firstborn from her first term in college, away from home. Once again she tasted the intense sweetness of being able to hear her two daughters laughing and talking with each other, swirled with the aching sadness at the inevitable end of another stage of life, as she realised that by 2020, the nest would be completely empty. There were also streaks of pride and relief as the woman recalled her trepidation 18 years ago when contemplating the task of raising the tiny person into a responsible adult. Stage one of that mission was successfully completed, as her firstborn daughter, conceived 19 Decembers ago, had thrived in her new environment. The sweetness, sadness, pride and relief coalesced into an unforgettable December, with each moment mindfully lived, and gratefully celebrated.
December 2020 Celebrating the half century will forever be remembered as the year of “The Pandemic” when everything changed. Ideas and half baked plans for a meaningful celebration of the 50th birthday were unceremoniously brushed aside as the novel coronavirus rampaged through the globe. Gatherings were limited, masks became mandatory and the no longer young woman had no choice but to turn inward as she reflected on the significance of the birthday she would celebrate a few days before Christmas. The lesson learned was to live fully in this moment with whoever is there to share it, because the next is not guaranteed. In the face of all the little taken for granted things that the pandemic has swept away, she is even more deeply grateful for the things that are left: a body that still works fairly well in spite of grey hairs, a few creaks and the beginnings of wrinkles and a mind that searches for growth wherever it can be found, and soul full of compassion. As she looked back on the past 49 Decembers she was struck by how each significant milestone revolved around the people who helped her to become the person she is today. The impending arrivals, presence, absence or imminent departure of people she loved were at the heart of every milestone she celebrated. Perhaps the most important gift of this 50th December for the woman is the eureka moment of truly understanding the following apparent paradox: the greatest vulnerability as well as the greatest strength of human beings is the undeniable and irresistible need to connect with each other in order to survive. This December will be remembered in future reflections not for what the pandemic took away but for the gift of truly appreciating that the human connection encompasses so much more than just physical proximity and touch. So although her physical circle of people to celebrate with has diminished, her world has expanded to include people that she perhaps would never have dreamed of connecting deeply with, had it not been for the pandemic. These new found connections and re-established past connections have allowed the almost 50 year old woman to deeply appreciate similarities in the midst of differences. In striving to walk in another’s shoes, it has made her more aware of what makes her own shoes more comfortable. This December she is deeply grateful for the blessings of life, love and friendship bestowed over the past 50 years which transcend the limitations of The Pandemic.