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Rebirthday parties celebrate life, friendship

I had the pleasure of hosting a birthday party recently honoring a dear and cherished friend on her 11th rebirthday. That's right, I said "rebirthday."

My friend, Holly Hahn-Baker, is actually 50 years old. When Holly and I attended elementary school together, I was a little frightened of her. She was the skinniest little kid and she wore one of those bracelets alerting the world to her many medical problems. Despite a lot of health issues, Holly always seemed cheerful, upbeat and enthusiastic.

By the time we reached high school, I was less frightened of this extremely intelligent, kind and enthusiastic teenager. I was always impressed with Holly's perseverance against a lot of medical odds.

After drifting apart in college and afterward, we reconnected in Buffalo, each of us returning to make the city our permanent home. Our renewed friendship quickly turned into a sisterhood.

I soon learned that Holly's medical issues were life threatening. Her lungs had only 5 percent working capacity and her short-term prognosis was not good. After years of battling major medical issues, she was finally put on a list for a transplant, one that would change her life, and mine, in immeasurable ways.

Eleven years ago, Holly was given her life back. More appropriately, Holly was given a new life, after undergoing a double-lung transplant in St. Louis, Mo. After months of recuperation, she returned to Buffalo to start her life over with two new lungs.

We were told that Holly might have five good post-transplant years -- a maximum of five years. She has beaten the odds and has lived her life over the past 11 years with more joy and greater quality than many people enjoy in an entire lifetime.

Near the first anniversary of her transplant, a small group of close friends decided to throw a rebirthday party for Holly. The group included her husband, David, Mary and Gary (who would marry in 2001), and my husband, Brian, and me.

As we celebrated Holly's first rebirthday, Brian and I awaited the birth of our first child. For the third rebirthday party, we included a recipe from Holly's transplant cookbook as a memorial to one of Holly's closest transplant friends, Ted Tunison, who had recently died.

Through many major life events, including births and deaths, we have tried to keep the rebirthday tradition going. This year, our group was a little smaller and a lot sadder because Mary died within the past few months.

As a memorial to her, a few special "Mary" dishes were prepared, including corn pudding, which is one of Holly's favorites. We raised our glasses in a toast to friendship, family, birth and rebirth.

Several hours later, as everyone started showing signs of sleepiness, I remembered that I had stashed seven treat bags in the drawer. When I took out the treat bags filled with "penny" candies, each member of our party squealed with glee. One could understand my 7- and 9-year-old sons getting excited over the candy, but it was the grown-ups who were truly excited.

As I looked around the room at everyone calling out trades -- "I'll trade you Mary Janes and Jolly Ranchers for Tootsie Rolls and Smarties" -- I experienced the simple yet profound joy of that precious moment.

I am looking forward to hosting many more rebirthday parties for Holly, and especially to celebrating life and friendship.

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