Gerda Is Overwhelmed with Good Wishes and Editing Overload as She Turns 67—and Doña Quixote, aka My Dementia, Isn’t Far Behind

I feel so loved after so many family and friends contacted me for my birthday by phone, e-mail, Facebook, and in person. Thanks SO much to everyone!

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Gerda’s christening in 1949. Gerda with her proud and overwhelmed-looking parents Susan and Boshoff Steenekamp.

By Monday, the actual day of my birthday, the occasion had already been amply celebrated with our family and two more dinner parties are scheduled this week with friends. Earlier in the month, I also went out with my BFFs Kirstin, Shen, and Lynne to celebrate my and Shen’s birthdays over dinner and stories that had us slapping our knees and choking on our wine with hilarity. For the actual day, Peter and I had chosen to celebrate quietly by ourselves. In the morning we went for a pedicure. In two nearby massage chairs just like ours, a woman accompanied by a gay friend (he said) were having their feet scrubbed too. In an aside, I thanked Peter for having shed his South African machohood (many years ago!) to the point of enjoying a pedicure with me, adding the cliché “even if you’re not gay.” The other couple had their toenails painted: a glittery green for the woman and black for the man. Neither Peter nor I like to have our nails painted. (Yes, we’ve done this before.) When my husband saw the other guy’s shiny black nails sticking from his sandals afterward, he got decliner’s remorse. Next time, we promised each other.

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Unbirthday pedicure in Idaho in 2015

The rest of the morning was spent in lovely errands, like buying wine, and then we went to our Starbucks down the road for coffee. Okay, I know it’s not cool these days among coffee puritans to support Starbucks, but they get my coffee order RIGHT: grande decaf latte single shot. Besides, Mike, Diana, Amanda, Allison, Allie, Keaton, Myrna, Jo, and the other baristas greet us with the enthusiasm of the Cheers crowd when we walk in the door—and often they have my coffee ready before I have even ordered.

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Peter and Gerda Celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary coffee at Starbucks because the both had too much work for a “traditional” big celebration. Over a decade later, I still remember it as a life highlight.

In the evening, Peter picked up our favorite junk food, lamb gyros from Mad Greek down the road. I slathered mine with enough sliced tomatoes to cut the grease a bit, Peter poured on the hot sauce, and we sat eating on trays in the living room while watching the first presidential debate.

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During the hours not spent on specific activities, I worked and worked on my final book edits that my marvelous editor at Hachette, Paul Whitlatch, and editorial assistant, Lauren Hummel, keep coming. I had anticipated an editing rush at the end of September, so two months ago I prepared for my and Peter’s long-in-the-making trip to Europe on October 4. We’ll be traveling until the end of October. So I had selected and distilled and tried on and accessorized my clothes for the trip (we are each taking only a carry-on bag and a small backpack) and found and wore in comfortable walking shoes before the book edits started arriving. I had even packed my bag to make sure everything fits, but took out the clothes again so they could air until the night before we leave. When Paul sent the first batch of edits arrived by e-mail On September 15, I was in good shape to dig in and try to get as many chapters as possible done before we leave.

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Paul Whitlatch, Hachette Senior Editor. Photo: Adweek.com

By my birthday, I’d had eleven long days of editing. It got to a point that my head would just not cooperate any more, despite the fact that Paul and Lauren are making it as easy as possible for me to do the work, giving clear in-text suggestions of additional information that a passage might need and now and then practically giving me a sample sentence of the kind they’d like me to add. Doña Quixote had crushed my pride in “my own idea or die” a long time ago, so I just breathe “thank you” and move on. Despite Paul’s kindness and generosity, I my stress- and anxiety levels rose up to my ears, my skull, the top of my mohawky bedhead. Keeping my focus on doing what is required rather than writing myself into another sidelong narrative is the hardest brain-work I have ever done. My goal and the thoughts and ideas of how to get there that shimmered for a moment slip away mid-paragraph as I shift my eyes from line to line. After a few days of me constantly fighting to stay on track, Doña Quixote came galumphing from her hook on the back stoep and settled on my shoulder. She is heavier than her skeletal make-up would suggest. I try to shudder her off, but those bony fingers hook into my skin like eagle claws. She follows me from my desk to the bathroom where I can’t remember shampoo-before-conditioner when I wash my hair and to my bedroom where her whining makes sleep impossible. In the meantime Peter keeps the dishwasher humming and the food coming, in between talking the Doña down and mopping up my tears. Such was the state of our household during the weekend that led up to my Monday birthday.

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Gerda telling Doña Quixote to f off.

Since Peter and I have since our earliest married years adopted low-key celebrations on days that had built-in work or other stresses, we have had quiet, context-appropriate celebrations like this many times before. While relaxing in my massage chair for my pedicure while my foot professional, a male, was kneading my calf muscles, I might not have pondered our custom (other than with great gratitude) had it not been for the pedicurist scraping Peter’s calluses asking what Peter gave me for my birthday. I chipped in with “A love letter, a fabulous card he made himself, and a pedicure.” The woman, a recent immigrant from Vietnam, was clearly not impressed with Peter’s lack of supposed American Birthday Magnanimity. “Is that all?”

I laughingly nodded and Peter and I squeezed each other’s hands.

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Gerda, Peter, extended family, and made-in America family celebrated Gerda’s birthday BIGLY in 2013.

This is what I did not tell the pedicurist: Peter’s home-made card is amazing and took many hours of work on a paper-cutting, scoring, and drawing machine, CRICUT (pronounced like the insect), that a generous friend gave us a moth or two ago, together with a lesson on how to use it. Peter, out-of-the-boxer that he is, did not apply one of the hundreds of designs on the company’s website to making my card. Instead, he studied instructions he found on the web on how to create his own design. From the way he suddenly hid things away in his study when I popped in unannounced, I suspected he was having an affair. At least I know now that he was making me a card instead.

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The love letter for my birthday is also a custom between us. Since I met him in a physics class at the University of Pretoria fifty-two years ago, we have always written each other a love letter on our birthdays—even (or maybe especially) during the handful of years when our marriage was fragile and staying together required hard work from both of us. To me, his letters have become more stunning and precious every year. He said it would be okay if shared a few sentences of this year’s letter with you: “I don’t often tell you [he actually does, frequently], but each night when we sit on the couch together, I thrill to have you next to me in the quiet of our house. Lately there have been numerous moments when my heart gets cold as I imagine an event that could damage this harmony that we have. I suspect that the thought of mortality comes more easily as one ages. For me it is not the moment of death that is in my thoughts. Rather, through aging I have come to love you ever more and to enjoy even more your company, your thoughts, your body, and the loving look in your eyes when you look at me. It is the loss of that daily growing depth of love and love of life that scares the hell out of me. However, I should not be scared because I have had the most wonderful life with you that anyone can even dream about.”

Take that, pedicure lady!

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I didn’t tell the pedicurist that my biggest gift of all was Peter’s wisdom to know that Monday would not be a good day for whooping it up on my birthday. The peaceful time he gave me, the freedom from even having to appreciate and applaud his love for me should he have heaped on me fancy gifts or a restaurant meal, mean more to me than the price of rubies.

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Gerda tries out her wardrobe for the European trip

Seven days to go, another huge gift kicks in–a birthday as well as an  un-birthday present for both Peter and me when we set out together on our first ever for-our-pleasure-alone trip to Europe. Throughout our life as immigrants we had high financial overheads because all our blood family and life-long friends live in South Africa. We have, of course, wanted to visit them as often as possible, and sometimes we had to make unexpected journeys to be present during serious illnesses or after someone died. While each of us had stopped in some or other European city for a day or two on a business trip or during a weekend hiatus en route to South Africa, we have never planned a trip planned around our separate and shared desires alone. Since, fifteen years ago, I have a completed a novel about Michelangelo set in Renaissance Italy, I particularly look forward to verifying aspects of my research in person, to see places and works of art that I know by heart from images and scholarly art-critical discussions. As Peter says in his letter, “[soon we’ll be together] on our European vacation where we will enjoy the best sights, gastronomic delights, romantic strolls, operatic areas [Yesss! We have tickets for Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at La Scala in Milan] and a visit to Michelangelo’s world.”

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Doña Quixote is sulking under the rafters of our back stoep. She will not be going along.