The Best Birthday Ever

This is a somewhat long story about a birthday, a bump in the road, resilience, and a hot dog. My apologies for the length.

My birthday was a few days ago. The morning had dawned darker and grayer than usual, the first day without sunshine in many weeks, so dark that I initially thought my bedside clock was wrong.

I had been anticipating this birthday for quite some time. It would be a day of rejuvenation and reflection spent off-island.

My plan was to take the ferry from the south end and once on the mainland, I would drive directly to Dolce Si, a Sicilian bakery where I usually enjoy one shortbread cookie with a small black coffee. This time I was going enjoy a slice of cake. Preferably white with white icing. Something celebratory.

I had scheduled a day at the Korean ladies’ spa across town, casually referred to in Tacoma as the “naked spa”. Five glorious hours of silence. Silent soaking in pools of succeedingly cooler temperatures for an hour. 102 degrees, then 97, 93, and 90, but not the 60-degree pool and waterfall.

Next, a silent full-body scrub from noon to one o’clock. A silent rejuvenating hour lying eyes closed on the heated sand floors in the various hot mineral rooms. Jade and Mud. Charcoal. Himalayan Salt. A silent therapeutic hour of massage. More rest. Blueberry tea.

I knew that afterwards I would be melted beyond mellow and ready for a birthday dinner at one of the seafood restaurants along the waterfront at Ruston Way. I had been looking at menus online and in my mind’s eye, I saw myself sitting at a table in the shade where a gentle breeze would lift my bangs while I stared at the sea through dark sunglasses.

Maybe after dinner I would consider shopping. Maybe a new shirt in a bright color. Most of my wardrobe is black. If I bought something new, I’d have to donate something old. I’m keeping my closet in a state of status quo.

I finished my coffee, brushed my teeth, dressed, and packed a tote bag with some basics for the day off-island. A book. A banana. A gluten-free lemon Luna bar.

I grabbed my keys and headed out. Returned to the house twice for forgotten items. Water bottle. Sunglasses.

Finally, I was in the ferry line watching the M/V Chetzamoka approaching in the distance, the sun shining brightly by now, the fog burned off, the clouds evaporated from the brilliant blue sky. A tiny smile curving up the corners of my mouth.

After the ferry unloaded, I saw brake lights brightening ahead as we started our engines and drove on board to our directed places on deck. The ferry pulled away and we were afloat. It was truly a beautiful day.

I adjusted my seat for the 15-minute crossing, opened my book, and glanced back at the tote bag in the empty passenger seat. Something was off. It dawned on me that the tote bag was there, but my purse was not. This wasn’t something that would normally be an issue, but this was not a normal situation. We pay our fare on the return to the island, not the departure. I began to sweat.

In that split second, I realized that we would be disembarking on the opposite shore in ten minutes and—without my purse—I would have no way to return to the island and no way to move forward with my plans. Truly I was in a no woman’s land.

I was dumbstruck and frightened that I had let this happen. This was going to be worse than “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”. I gave myself permission to cry for about a minute. It felt like a lot more.

I remembered a young mother on our island Facebook page telling of this precise thing happening to her a couple weeks ago. She had her toddler with her, and once she calmed down, she got out of her car and walked around the ferry with her toddler on her hip looking for a friendly face to ask for ferry fare so she could return home and retrieve her purse. She found a kind older woman and was saved in minutes.

I had no toddler to carry on my hip, and I was usually the kind older woman. I couldn’t bring myself to walk around and ask for money. Especially with the gap between the ferry and the opposite shore growing smaller and smaller. My car was second in line.

All I could think of was Charlie in the old song “MTA” by the Kingston Trio. I hadn’t thought of those lyrics in fifty years! The body knows.

“He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston,
He’s the man who never returned.” (“Poor old Charlie…”)

I drove off the ferry, clanking over the metal ramps, and immediately swung around to the ticket booth line to discuss my options. I knew they wouldn’t let me back on the ferry without paying the fare unless I was in the back of an ambulance, but I needed options.

The ticket seller, a woman younger than I but old enough to understand, told me that I could buy a ticket with my iPhone and it would be delivered to my email. But I didn’t have a charge card number.

Tears rolled down my cheeks while I tried to think who might be able to help.

I called my son in Omaha. There was no one behind me in line. My son has a list of my charge card numbers. I explained in two almost unemotional sentences and he gave me the 16-digit number I needed. I wrote it in Sharpie on a ferry schedule and in my nervous haste, I accidentally scratched a huge Sharpie line across the thigh of my favorite jeans.

“Siri, find how to remove black Sharpie from denim.”

A car appeared behind me.

Hey lady, ya gotta move!

I parked further down the street and attempted to purchase a ticket online. The text was so tiny that I received four error messages before succeeding. The auto-responder said, “You will receive your ticket at the email address you provided within one hour. If you do not…”

Suddenly I was hungry. There would be no birthday cake with black coffee for breakfast. No birthday dinner. I ate the banana and gluten-free lemon Luna bar.

When no ferry ticket arrived in the next fifteen minutes, I called the Korean ladies’ spa.

Appointment time was approaching on the other side of town. I explained what had happened.

Could they, would they, take my charge card number without the card present?

I must speak to my manager.

Yes, they would!

I set out with the thought to continue my plans and make the best of it.

At the front desk, I thanked them for understanding and explained that it was also my birthday present to me. After all the excitement, I felt it appropriate to add on a full-body aromatherapy moisturizing treatment to calm my nerves. They were happy to oblige.

Your birthday? We can give you Birthday Discount!


Just show driver’s license to prove birth date.

But. I don’t have my license with me.

Passport? Anything?

Thinking, thinking. I remembered that I had my passport stored in Dropbox. Sent it their printer.

But how did you get here? From the ferry?

Huh? I drove.

Without your drivers’ license!?! Eyes wide aghast at the thought.

Did I have any choice?

Right. But what would you do if you had been stopped!?!

I would cry?



They gave me my locker key on a wrist strap, a thin cotton wrap, two towels, and a cotton mop cap to cover my hair. I put my clothes in the locker and opened the door to the soaking room where several young women were already making their way from one pool to the next. 20 and 30-somethings with perky breasts and unblemished flesh that showed no damage from the wear and tear of Life.

Small, deep pools the size of large tiled bathtubs. Some as large as a hot tub. The room was high-ceilinged and dimly-lit. No shadows.

I placed my wrap and towels in a cubby.

Forty years ago I looked like that too.

Now I have a dented right shinbone from a long forgotten childhood injury.

A scar from a left breast lumpectomy a few years ago.

A field of dark spots that increase at random in spite of religiously applying sunblock and no sunbathing in the last thirty years.

Calf muscles taut from hiking, hiking, hiking. Thighs could be better.

Hands that have kneaded bread, weeded gardens, swung babies high.

A bit of dirt still under my thumbnail from pulling beets this morning.

The eyes of an older woman. Kind and crinkled.

But no judgment here. No staring. We respect each other. I have no regrets for the passage of time.


The second I slid into the first pool, my tension melted away. I began to recall a conversation I had with a writer friend last week. He asked me what I wished I had more of.

That’s easy. Patience.

Surely I was learning a lesson in that today, but mostly, I was learning about Resilience.

Not football resilience. Not “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”.

This was Take It Away. Put yourself in a position where you Need People and see how you do. Rise up from a fall.

I’m an introvert. Anyone will tell you that. I enjoy public speaking but I’m not so good at one on one, although I’m learning.


In the pools, I found myself drifting back in time as I soaked. Weirdly, the television screen in my brain was showing “Family Feud” in the days of Richard Dawson.

“Things that get soaked.” Stained laundry, tired feet, raincoats, dirty dishes.


It was time for my scrub session. The Korean lady tapped the tabletop.

Face down please.

I was glad to see that the Dial soap from last time had been upgraded to a bar of something creamy and unscented. I wouldn’t be turning red this time. The scrub mitten made from nylon pot scrubbing material had also been upgraded to gloves made of sturdy cloth with a rough texture.

“Things that are polished.” Seaglass, fingernails, sterling silver flatware.

Turn over please.

I had no urge to open my eyes. Felt the frothy soap swishing and scrubbing along my thighs, my arms. Felt a figure eight pattern swishing around my breasts, a smooth belly rub.

I sighed with pleasure.

Buckets of hot water dumped when I least expected it. It felt so good. So shockingly good.

An hour later, I made my way to the cubbies and retrieved my towels and my wrap, made my way to the Mud and Jade room. It was hot. I stretched out on my towel with a canvas Asian pillow beneath my head. Sand-filled, I think. Similar in size and weight to a bag of sugar.

The door swung open. It was time for my massage. I had lost track of time.


On the massage table, more heat soothed me. With my face in the cradle, all I could think of was the young woman wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the cool ground of a traffic island between two lanes while her husband held a sign.

Homeless. Work Wanted. Anything. Please. Hungry.

This morning. As I was on my way to a spa.

“Things that are heated.” Soup, dinner rolls, saunas, indoor swimming pools.

My little birthday inconvenience was not so terrible.

After the massage, I washed my hair in preparation for the moisturizing treatment.

Again, eyes closed. Felt hot liquids being poured on my body. Olive oil, honey.

I opened one eye and saw that my arm was slick and wet like baby oil on a beach body and covered with bright beads of opaque white liquid.

What is that, I asked?

Milk. Whole milk.

Biafra, 1967-70. The war to secede from Nigeria when 1 million civilians died from starvation. Why Biafra at that moment? The body knows. The body connects the dots.

On your back please.

Hot towels in place to contain the moisture.

Inhaling cool cucumber as I felt cucumber slices being placed on my eyes, the weight of cucumber-saturated washcloths covering my face, my nostrils the only openings. I felt a wave of claustrophobia as I tried to open my eyes and instead saw kaleidoscope shapes on the back of my eyelids, like the hypnagogic hallucinations I once experienced in grad school. Overworked and overtired. Valium and deep breaths for six scary months.

I quickly told myself it’s OK. Don’t panic. I was fine. Soon the treatment cloths were peeled away and a final application of peppermint awakened me.

I dipped ladles of mugwort tea from a shallow pool and poured it all over my body so that I wouldn’t smell like sour milk on the next day.

After all this, yes, I was in slow motion. Retrieved my iPhone from the locker and opened it at the front desk. Ferry ticket had arrived.

Asked the ladies if I could print it for scanning at the dock.

Time to go home.


In the ferry line once again, I dug around in the lint at the bottom of my tote bag, looking for a cough drop. None.

I thought about my mini-disaster. No 911s were dialed. No broken bones or heart attacks. No floods or fires.

Tonight I would be snug in my bed embarrassed that I had cried in front of a stranger. My lesson in Resilience would be learned and hopefully not forgotten.

We were waved onto the ferry. On the other side, I drove home. I was too tired to cook much of anything. Dug around in the refrigerator and grilled a hot dog. It was an uncured, all-natural, nitrate free, Painted Hills hot dog, so it was pretty darn good.

Then I went to bed.


“To remove black Sharpie from denim, fold up a paper towel and hold in place over the Sharpie stain. Turn denim and pour alcohol to saturate spot on the reverse side of the stain. Rub vigorously. Check the paper towel on the right side of denim. The Sharpie will have transferred from the denim to the paper towel. Repeat if necessary.”

best birthday

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