Eighteen, chai, life

My daughter turned 18 this past weekend. Eighteen!

I remember so clearly being home with a new baby, sleepless and overwhelmed and terrified of losing my independent adult life. Every half-hour seemed to drag on for a year. (Especially at 3:30 a.m.) The nurse/diaper/cry/nurse routine felt like it would go on forever. I couldn’t imagine her sleeping through the night, let alone going to school.

The juncture she has reached now — turning 18, a legal adult, applying to colleges — would have seemed as impossibly distant as Star Trek’s 23rd century. But of course here it is, and like going through a Trekkie wormhole, it feels as if practically no time has passed.

Ice cream cake with Rollos and Kit Kits, by my sister-in-law Esther / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I could write about how proud Sam and I are of the person that B. has become. But I won’t.

Instead I want to play with numbers, which is a polite way of saying I want to write about me.

She is 18. I am about to turn 54.

Eighteen is one-third of 54. I look at her and see my life divided into neat thirds: From birth to 18, I was growing up. From 18 to 36, I was an independent adult. From 36 to 54, I was a parent. Yes, I continued to work as a journalist, but my main creative energy went into being a parent and into projects that spun off from parenting (helping start the Julia Morgan School for Girls, writing a book about girls’ schools, etc.).

Now my next 18 years will take me from 54 to 72. What will that entail? A return to being the independent adult, a chance to invent a new career, more time for fiction writing?

Eighteen also connects to the word “chai” in Jewish tradition. The Kabbalist mystics assigned numerical values to each Hebrew letter, and the chet-yud of “chai” add up to 18. I learned this around the time of B.’s bat mitzvah, when she started receiving checks from relatives in weird random amounts — a check for $36? or $72? It was mystifying until someone explained the tradition of giving sums that are multiples of “chai.”

And then 54 — thrice eighteen — is the age at which my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died two years later. Almost two decades after that, I learned that I had inherited the BRCA2 gene that creates a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I undertook preventive surgeries so my actual risk of breast/ovarian cancer is now very low — lower than that of the general non-BRCA population. But still, the age 54 carries undefined emotional weight for me. I’m not sure how I will react to it. Part of me irrationally assumes I will follow in her path, and that age 54 signals doom. Another part is prepared to celebrate every day after 54 that I’m cancer-free — Hooray! I made it another day longer than expected!

What does this all add up to, all these 18s and multiples of 18?  B. took the graphing calculator to school for her math final today, but that’s not why I’m stymied.  Perhaps this is just continued perplexity at the strangeness of a system where children’s birthdays inspire joy and wonder, but our own aging feels scary and bittersweet, if not downright sad.

At some point in those years between 18 and 54, birthdays shifted from being a moment when doors perpetually opened more — and more! and more! —  to a moment when they wobble on their hinges and maybe start inching towards closure.



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13 Responses to “Eighteen, chai, life”

  1. Carol Emert Says:

    Beautiful post, Ilana. Beautifully captures some of the ambiguity of middle age.

  2. samantha91288 Says:

    Mazel tov to you and your daughter! 18 is such a milestone. I remember being so excited to leave my childhood behind – not so much now ;)

  3. Linda K. Wertheimer Says:

    Happy birthday to your daughter and mazel tov to you for the wisdom you have. L’chaim. Linda

  4. Ellie Shaw Says:

    I love your door metaphor – very apt and lovely.
    And I empathize with your thoughts about living longer than your mother. My Dad died of lung cancer at 50. In the years since I passed that milestone myself I often think “this is a day he didn’t have” and try to make the most of it.

    Congratulations and best wishes to Becca. L’chaim.

  5. elliot Says:

    Reconnecting past our salad days is grand. But part of me always will think of you, Ilana, as 18 or so. So, rejoice in the relativity of human’s shared sense of time and friendship.

    Aging happened fast to me. Overnighting in a train with my (very) future bride, I was moving from 24 to my 25th year. Roundabout the witching hour of my birthday, something twanged in my back. I spent the next 3 days on a bed in a grundgy hotel room in Merida, unable to get up. So this is what the next quarter century is going to be like, I thought. Not so of course, and so not so with your outlook on post-triple chai. Elliot

  6. Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson Says:

    Mazel tov to your daughter and to you. I just found you through BlogHer, and I’m still figuring things out there, but as a teacher, I can tell you it is never too late to do anything. Ever.

    Probably. ;-)

    Nice to meet another Member of the Tribe. #MOT.

  7. Matt Mealiffe, MD Says:

    I very much enjoyed your post – which I stumbled across in the context of a BRCA2 related search and thought I’d point out the existence of another new web resource for women and men with BRCA1/2 mutations: BRCAscoop.com (which aims to be a very solid resource for expert review of recent clinical research results with potential implications for health and wellness of BRCA1/2 carriers).

    Although I am not a BRCA carrier, my father died at 45 of a brain tumor, and I’m interested to see how I’ll react to turning 45 in a few years. Thanks again for your blog post, and be well!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thanks Matt. That looks like a great resource for BRCA news and I’ll add myself to the email list.

      As I’m sure you know, there is another great site for people dealing with BRCA and hereditary ovarian/breast cancer, which is http://www.facingourrisk.org. They were invaluable when I was making my own prevention decisions.

      As a former business reporter, I’m curious what the business model for BRCAScoop and the related sites are? Is there a plan for advertising revenue, some other revenue stream, or is this a purely volunteer effort?

      • Matt Mealiffe, MD Says:


        Yes, FORCE, BrightPink (www.bebrightpink.org), and others are wonderful resources and places on the web to which I’ve sent patients with BRCA1/2 mutations… There are a lot of great resources on the web, each with their own strengths, and I think we are headed towards a future in which individuals with inherited risk for adult-onset disease and individuals managing chronic diseases will have a robust menu of online information sources and services to choose from.

        We want to be part of the Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer ecosystem as the go-to place online for robust, rapid and easy-to-access, expert-driven curation and analysis of recent BRCA1- and BRCA2-related clinical research results and their potential implications for BRCA1 and BRCA2 carriers – regardless of whether they are in a community in which there is little access to high volume HBOC clinics or whether they are in a major metropolitan area and want one more source of info between clinic visits.

        I’m running out of space in the comment box; I’ll create a 2nd comment right now to answer your business model question.

      • Matt Mealiffe, MD Says:

        And yes, Ilana, you are correct in noticing that we are not a non-profit. We see ourselves as a socially-responsible business and aspire to be like Patagonia and other companies that fall into the bucket of doing well by doing good.

        In thinking about how to set this up, several things were clear: (1) philosophically, I believe that industry support or advertising on a site like BRCAscoop ultimately leads to lower quality info due to conflicting loyalties, etc.; (2) I wanted to avoid a situation in which readers actually become the product rather than the customer; (3) nonprofits face significant challenges raising money in the current economic environment and must devote really substantial resources to fundraising…we wanted to focus on creating valuable information resources everyday. For all of these reasons, I thought the best thing to do would be to align our interests completely with our readers. Therefore, we offer some great completely free resources, in addition to some that are paid for by readers or more precisely a subset of readers – in general with these, we anticipate that they will be offered via a “pay what you want” approach with 50% of the amount paid being donated to nonprofits like FORCE and others. This helps the entire ecosystem, allows everyone who would benefit to access them, but hopefully will lead to enough readers contributing enough for the “pay what you want” amount that we’ll be able to build BRCAscoop as a great resource for many years going forward.

        In this way, we hope to serve as a resource for men and women with BRCA mutations and their families over time. We’ll be talking about this some more on the blog in coming weeks, and I’m glad you asked!

        Best regards,
        Matt Mealiffe

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