“Hey sweetheart,” my wife said cheerily as I stared into my coffee. “Today’s your day.”
“Huh?” I said blankly. It had been a long night and all I wanted was to eat my breakfast in peace and go to bed.
“It’s your birthday, silly. Don’t tell me you forgot. Didn’t you tell me once that the first signs of senility were forgetfulness and apathy?”
“Well, I don’t know if I ever said that. And frankly, I don’t care.” She was silent. “Stop looking at me like that,” I said sharply. “Of course I remember that it’s my birthday.”
“So why the long face?”
“Depends,” I said with a scowl pointing to the box on the counter. It was a birthday gift from my sister.
“Depends on what?” she shrugged. “Your happiness depends on what your sister gave you for your birthday.”
“Just open the box,” I said. “I already know what’s in it.”
She tore off the wrapping to reveal its contents. Her face contorted as she attempted to suppress her laughter, but then she composed herself enough to turn back around to face me. “She sent you a box of Depends?”
“Yeah, and I’ll bet there’s an AARP card and some DentuCream in there as well. It’s her way of welcoming me into the club.” I knew she was going to do this and I’d been dreading the day. I wouldn’t have been surprised if some hapless handyman knocked on the door saying that he had been told to come to this address to begin building wheelchair ramps.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting older,” my wife said with that sickly maternal smile. I was half expecting her to pick up my spoon and begin feeding me.
“I don’t like the “O” word,” I answered. “Please don’t use it around me. Old men take things like Viagra. And you know I don’t need no stinkin’ Vitamin V.” I said this with a lecherous swagger while attempting to swat my wife’s passing backside.
“I heard that,” said Whitney, my now-married daughter, as she entered the kitchen. “And that’s disgusting.”
“Where did you come from?” I said briskly, a bit miffed at having a child intrude on a private moment. “ I didn’t hear you come in the front door.”
“Maybe it’s time for hearing aids, daddy,” she said cutely while leaning down to kiss my head.
“I should have spanked you more when you were a baby.”
“Spanked her more?” my wife said with an authoritative air. “You never spanked her at all, as my memory serves me.” My daughter just shrugged impishly.
“Anyway, happy birthday daddy,” said Whitney. “And speaking of birthdays, have you given any thought to retiring from emergency medicine? You’re not getting any younger you know.”
“What is this obsession that everyone suddenly has with my age?”
“You don’t like the ‘R’ word either,” my wife said. “Pretty soon we won’t have much of an alphabet left. I read Greg Henry’s piece the other day, the one about his last shift. I thought he ‘exited the stage’ with grace and dignity.”
“Greg is old,” I said bluntly. “I am not old.”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “He seems pretty energetic to me.”
“Honey. Greg Henry is the Energizer Bunny. That’s not a stuffed animal in those commercials. It’s Greg. They dress him up to look like a pink bunny and he just runs around beating that drum. Greg could have practiced another 20 years if he had wanted to.”
“Is that what you’re going to do?” my daughter asked somewhat seriously. “I mean, practice another 20 years? How will you know when it’s time to give it up?”
“I like emergency medicine,” I said, beginning to sound a bit defensive. “I think I’m pretty good at it. Heck, I’ve probably forgotten as much medicine as most of my younger partners have even learned.”
“Your partners must be pretty smart,” my wife said with an eye roll. It took a moment for me to catch the sarcasm. “We’ve saved enough for a nice retirement,” she continued. “Oops. Sorry for the ‘R’ word slip up. But seriously, you could quit nights and do something a little easier.”
“If I had wanted something ‘easier’ I would have gone into radiology. They’re retired the day they begin. Heck, I have to call Australia at night to find a radiologist who is still awake. Did you know that every single night, there are about 10,000 emergency physicians who are awake and alert attending to the sick and suffering in America?”
“Awake and alert?” my wife said skeptically. “I see what you look like after a night in the ER.”
“Don’t forget about all the bars and convenience stores that are open all night, too,” my daughter said.
“Yeah, and if they would close all the bars and convenience stores, there wouldn’t be any place to get drunk and no one to rob and beat up,” I said. “I wouldn’t have anything to do. I could get a nap. But that isn’t going to happen. So there will always be a need for someone crazy enough to stay up all night waiting for someone to get sick or injured. And that’s just what I do.”
“It’s not just a job,” I continued a little apologetically. “I know I complain about it all the time. But I do this because I like it. I do this because I’m needed. I know, I know I’m always saying that no one ever says ‘thank you’. And that’s true. And I hear all the complaints about how crowded the ER is, and how long everyone has to wait, and how the ‘dumb ER doc’ didn’t get the diagnosis right, yada, yada, yada. But I’m proud of the fact that I’m one of those 10,000 men and women who are there every night picking up the pieces of broken lives. And I don’t care what anyone says, it’s a damn tough job. But I think I do it pretty well, and I’m not going to give it up while there’s still breath in this old tired body.”
“Ahem,” my wife said, pretending to clear her throat. “Would you mind stepping down from your soap box for a minute so that I can give you a Happy Birthday kiss?”
“Me too, daddy,” my daughter said proudly.
“By the way,” my wife said as she wrapped her arms around my neck. “What would you like to do for your birthday present?”
“I’d like to take a long vacation somewhere,” I said without hesitation, “to somewhere where I can do absolutely nothing. I’m exhausted.”
“You are such a hypocrite,” she said with a teasing smile. “Go to bed. And get a good night’s sleep. You deserve it.”