40 by Solvej Schou

The doctor takes my hands, staring at me carefully.

“I think you should get tested for BRCA today. Just spit in a tube. It’s easy,” she says. I’ve never met her before or talked to her about BRCA1 or BRCA2, the genes that if mutated increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and that I’ve known about since high school. I got a baseline mammogram when I was 22, and have been getting one every year since I was 30. I’m here now because my physician recommended seeing a gynecologist about an abnormal—and apparently not too abnormal—pap smear. But the gynecologist looks at my chart, and down the emotional rabbit hole I go.

“No, I don’t want to do that,” I say.

“So maybe soon, on your birthday? If you test positive, we’ll look into removing your fallopian tubes and you going on the pill,” she says briskly, moving her hands away and starting to tinker with a nearby laptop, her face settling into indifference.

“Nope,” I say. “I don’t want to spend my 40th birthday testing for BRCA.”

This week, the day I turn 40—and on one of the holiest Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—is the day I will live past the lifetime of my mother, who died of breast cancer when she was 39.

A week before my birthday is the 30th anniversary of her death. I was 9, almost 10, when she died, and every year since has been a lesson in mortality and the fear of dying how and when she did. But no, I’ve never—yet—tested for BRCA, and please don’t lecture me about it. I know.

Because the moment I turn 40, part of me will be free.


Of course, grief is not something you just get rid of, like an infection. It doesn’t sweep through your body, mind, heart and limbs in the moment, days and months after a loved one’s death, then disappears. It festers, it builds, it wanes, it hits more forcefully years later on anniversaries, holidays, birthdays and beyond. It’s unique to each person.

So don’t tell me how and when and why to grieve. Don’t tell anyone how to grieve.

And when there are secrets swept up in grief, when the person who’s died has buried secrets that explode out decades later, that too unleashes a secondary grief. That the person you idealized, that you looked up to and put on a pedestal for so many years, locked in a frozen memory of illness and soulful perfection, is capable of inflicting hurt well beyond death. And especially as a parent.

But that’s another story to tell.


Is turning 40 on Yom Kippur, a week after the 30th anniversary of my mom’s death, symbolic? I don’t know. But I do know it’s cause for reflection.

I’m not the most religious person. I go to services for Yom Kippur once a year, and maybe for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, the week before. Together, they’re the high holidays. And there’s meaning in ritual.

During Yom Kippur, I place my right fist on my heart, and beat it for each sin. I repent my failings of the past year. My misgivings. My transgressions. My faults. I open up my heart to be inscribed in the Book of Life. I tear up and think about death during the memorial Yizkor service. I call out the names of those who have died: my mom; my Jewish-Polish Holocaust survivor late grandmother—my mom’s mom; and others like Ning and Linda whose end came swiftly and shockingly, and too early, as with my mom. Cancer, a path of destruction. Cells gone wild, vicious and rogue, and the body folding in on itself, in revolt.

I have no control, I have no control, I have no control of illness, of death, of secrets, of pain. I have no control of how people react around me, of their emotions, their silence, their anger, their fear. I sat in a synagogue, a row to myself this year, on Rosh Hashanah, wearing a dark blue flowered dress that floats with chiffon, delicate. I sounded out the syllables of Hebrew I don’t understand, but felt heavy and deep inside my chest. And text meant to rattle stillness. “May the sound of the shofar shatter your complacency.” A man loudly blew the shofar—the traditional Jewish instrument, a horn, used during the Jewish high holidays—with a sputtering intensity. “May the sound of the shofar shatter your complacency.”

My skin is tight. I want to tear it off of my body, and then tear my body away. No body, no death. No complacency. Emotions flood my skull.


On the day of my 13th birthday, I locked myself in my family’s bathroom in our house in Hollywood, and cried hysterically, letting the grief for my mom out in such a forceful, physical, emotional way, it felt like I would crack open. It was the only way I could get my dad and my brother’s attention.

Eventually I came out of the bathroom, and we cried on my dad’s bed together. The first time all three of us were open about letting our emotions out all at once. I always felt on the brink of bursting. Music became a way to do that, to unleash. They gathered their grief into the internal crevices of their bodies. We didn’t talk about it. But the weight was there, a thick layer.


I have the tan skin of my late grandfather, who also was a Holocaust survivor, who died when my mom was a young teenager. I have the Jewish nose of my grandmother, with its wide bone at the top, that my mom shaved into a culturally acceptable thinness—I found out after she died—when she was 16.

The author wears a symbolic necklace, with the Hebrew word for “life.” Photo: Solvej Schou

I have my mom’s cheekbones. I have her pink lips. I have her eyes, though a more golden shade of brown. I sing, like she did, and thrust my voice into the sky to scream against injustice in protest after protest—many more now—like she did in the ‘60s. Long after she died, I discovered her books—lining shelves in our living room in Hollywood—about socialism and being pro-choice, about feminism.

I am turning 40, and my life may be long or short, but it isn’t hers. It’s mine.

Feature photo of the author and her mother, Rose, courtesy of the author.


Solvej Schou Photo: Alejandro Godinez
Solvej Schou
Photo: Alejandro Godinez

Solvej Schou is a Southern California based writer and musician. Solvej works as a staff senior writer at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. Her freelance articles have been published by The Associated Press, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Billboard and other outlets, and she is a former AP staff writer-reporter and Entertainment Weekly senior staff film writer. She has a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College, Columbia University, and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Three essays she wrote—on Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and Sharon Jones—are in the anthology book “Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl” out Oct. 9 from Black Dog & Leventhal. To find out more about her, visit her website at www.solvejschou.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.