Today’s Pay It Forward Week belongs to Jamie Gentille, author of the moving memoir, SURVIVING HIV: GROWING UP A SECRET AND BEING POSITIVE. She’s one of these people who is a firecracker of energy, always laughing, and always willing to get into trouble with you.
Which is why her story is so compelling.
Once again, if you buy Jamie’s book, or anyone’s this week including my own, and let me know in the comments, I’ll donate $3 per book to Troop First Foundation.
Okay, enough with the administrative stuff. This is Jamie’s day so I’ll hand the website over to her.
It Doesn’t Have to be Horses. It Just Has to be Amazing.
It’s my party, and I cried. Because I wanted to.
Well to be fair, I think I kind of needed to. It was my birthday. The big 3-5. Now, I wasn’t crying for the reason that other 35-year-old women may have cried… “My youth is gone!” “I don’t get carded anymore!” “I’ll never be in the Ice Capades!” “I can’t wear skinny jeans!” No way. My tears were out of pure gratitude. You see, 30-some years ago, no one thought I would be here today.
I was born with a serious heart defect called Tetrology of Fallot. After an arduous process of investigating what the heck was wrong with me –and why, as a toddler, I was constantly passing out –I finally got a definitive diagnosis. Tetrology of Fallot. Congrats. Thankfully, this was fixable through surgical intervention. At the ripe old age of three, I had open heart surgery to repair all of the defects. It was a very serious procedure, but by all accounts, it went beautifully. I recovered from surgery much faster than expected and quickly got back to the business of being a three-year-old, which for me, involved copious levels of ponies and roller skating.
Years later, the world learned of HIV and that many people were unknowingly infected through blood products in the early 1980’s – precisely the time of my surgery. Knowing that I had received a blood transfusion during surgery, my parents ended up getting me tested. It was then that they were told that their 8 year-old daughter had HIV..and 2 years to live.
Turns out, I’m not one for following the rules, because I saw their 2 years and raised them 25. Today, I am a healthy and happy woman who gets giddy at the prospect of growing old, and egads – getting wrinkles! During those early days, we didn’t know what to expect, and how many birthdays we would have together. My family hoped for the best, but prepared themselves to lose me at a very young age. I came to terms with my own mortality at that young age, and took every birthday as a blessing.
I was fortunate to have been able to begin a Phase I drug protocol when I was 10 years old. This was the first time that I had anything in my arsenal to fight this. And it worked. I responded incredibly well to medicine, and managed to stay relatively healthy through my school years. All of a sudden, I was in high school, and planning for college! My life was progressing “normally” – whatever that is. Yes, I had my challenges – fitting in my very strict medication schedule into my class schedule, my life—figuring out what to tell friends and who to trust—trying to navigate the dating world with this secret life! But all in all, life was amazing, and there was no stopping me.
Birthdays became cause for great celebration – a time to look back to where I came from and cherish what I had in my life. Along the way, I met and married an incredible man, Paul, who supports me in every way imaginable. Except for shopping – he does not support my shopping habits. Let’s just get that straight. He quickly became indoctrinated into this world of excessive celebration. My birthday fell within a month after we started dating, and I don’t think he realized what he was getting himself into. He met my entire family all at once, in a crowded party of people, and lived to tell the tale. Thankfully, he survived that sensory overload and hung on for more.
The next milestone birthday – 30—involved what every girl deserves. Horses and diamonds. It was a day full of family, friends, riding a horse around my mom’s house, and getting shiny trinkets all wrapped up in bows. The horse I had to give back. The diamonds, I kept.
We had a much quieter 35th birthday – just Paul and I, which gave me time to think about how lucky I am. This is not necessarily what I had planned for the day. I’m not usually sappy or introspective. I hadn’t planned on spending the good majority of my birthday afternoon in tears. I am not a big crier, really. I don’t cry at movies. I don’t cry at weddings. Sometimes, I feel like an Ice Queen, because I can’t irk out some measly tears when the moment really calls for it. But this day broke through my Wall of Ice and it all came out.
In a moment when I was simply explaining to Paul why birthdays are so important to me (and why we should go out and buy me some more diamonds), 35 years of gratitude just hit me. In the face. Hard. I started crying like a teenage drama queen. Then I did what every teenage drama queen should NOT do. I went on Facebook. I was just trying to pull it together and distract myself with some cat videos, and I got sucked into the birthday messages on my page. What the hell? Why did I do that? It was like pouring salt on the wound…in my eyeballs. Needless to say, it extended my sob-fest for another good twenty minutes.
Optical dehydration aside, though, it was a moving and cathartic day. Not the usual manic celebration, but just as profound. It still left me in utter awe of how lucky I am to be alive and thriving. I want everyone to celebrate their birthdays like this (not the crying, just the horses and stuff). Embrace living life and the privilege of getting old, even when it’s not perfect. Because it never is. And you can still hang on to your youth! I still wear my skinny jeans, thank you very much.
If you want to see my full story, please read my memoir, Surviving HIV: Growing up a Secret and Being Positive. Spoiler alert: I survived. Xoxo Love and birthday kisses to all!