In my 23,010 days on earth, I have been presented with several good opportunities to die. Back in the 1970s, I battled thyroid cancer, complete with surgery and radiation treatment. In 2003 my aortic valve went south, requiring replacement or, alternatively, an appointment with the grim reaper. In 2017 that valve ran out the clock and, again, I found myself staring down congestive heart failure, and a date with the undertaker, if it could not be fixed. It could, and I am okay in the ticker department now. Finally, back in 2019, after losing a battle with a mosquito, I spent a week trying to live, intubated and comatose, and then five more weeks trying to put myself back together from my bout with EEE. Once more, death had to release its grisly grip on me, although that time it really hurt, and I am still recovering.
But during that last episode, I realized the truth: I want to live.
Now, theologically, I know that death is not to be feared. What I mean by wanting to live is that if you are going to be here, in an earth-suit, for a period of time, shouldn’t you live every day? Are we willing to let work, toil, chores, appointments, routines be all that there is? And, if we wait too long to live, how do we know how much living we will do?
We will not.
On your grave marker will be a start date and an end date. You do not get to choose either. You were a surprise to the world when you showed up as a cute little bundle of joy, but it will be no surprise to your family, friends, and – hopefully – no surprise to you at the end. If you are alive, you will die. It’s the nature of the beast, the way of the world, the circle of life.
These are my thoughts as I turn 63, an innocuous little number, completely unlike the “milestone” birthdays.
Birthday milestones have had little impact on me. I mean, sure, the 16th meant I could drive, 18 (back in the 1970s) meant I could drink. But face it, by 21 all the hoopla is over. I had always wanted to be grown up anyway, so getting past all those pesky life markers just gave me more legitimacy. I do not remember turning 30, a huge one for many (it seems for the ladies in particular). I was married, had two kids, but could not tell you how I felt or what I did to celebrate. By the time 40 came around, not only was I still married but I had four kids, one of whom was already out of the nest, and the rest of them taking everything I had in time, money, and energy. But I have no idea how we celebrated that occasion because marking time in tens was no different than marking time in threes or sevens – at least to me.
My wife has been grand at marking my birthday events in the last few years. I have had magical weekend getaways, saw Fleetwood Mac on their last (legitimate) tour along with 23,000 of my closest screaming friends. One year, she bought the telescope-to-end-all-telescopes, a 16” Dobsonian with which I discovered galaxies, nebulae, and life on other planets. Okay, I didn’t actually discover life on other planets, but I did enjoy marveling at deep space. We spent a delightfully full week in the land of my birth, Carmel, California, for my 50th. For my 55th I was struggling to deal with the inexorable rush of aging, so she rented (at great expense) the Car Barn and filled it with lots of good friends, food, and beverages for a grand celebration.
I genuinely appreciate all these efforts to help me mark and enjoy the passing of time.
But the current pandemic, coming on the heels of my latest adventure in near-death experiences, has really brought home a few things, namely, what matters most, and the limited time available to enjoy that.
As you well know, youth is celebrated in our culture. All the commercials, stars, newscasters – everything points to youth and beauty. Except, of course, the commercials featuring older people. You know the ones – Cialis, assorted makeup products, hearing aids, the latest miracle serum – which, of course, are all guaranteed to make you seem… younger. You would think that getting old was a curse, some horrible fate strapped to our backs, a burden to try to overcome until they shovel the last pile of dirt over your box.
Well. That was a little gruesome, if not true.
But it turns out we have been marketed into believing that young is where it’s at. That only the vibrant, virile, sexy, tan, slim and beautiful young people matter. That the rest of us are deadwood, a blight on an otherwise lovely landscape of life. How many old people do you see in an ad for the Sandals Resorts? It’s almost like they are saying: “oldies, be quiet and pay taxes while the beautiful people play.” Mick Jagger famously sang “What a drag it is getting old” back in 1966. I am quite sure he is bumping about 100 by now.
I wonder how ol’ Mick feels about that little youthful lyrical indiscretion?
As I turn 63, I am here to set the record straight. It is the aging population that has a grasp of what is going on. Getting older is a rich blessing, a time to reflect on a lifetime of adventures and experiences, a time to take a breath and be content at where you have arrived, a time to ponder and scheme and dream of what the next round of life offers up.
Diana and I love to sit in the hot tub with a glass of wine, or on the front porch with a cup of coffee, or in the living room at breakfast – anywhere and anytime I sit with her is good – and plot our next move. We have never been rich. As a couple we have had some lean years and some fat years. We had a family of four kids at home during some of the leanest. But we learned that money is not the source of happiness. Even so, we now find ourselves in an empty nest with a few more worms to go around. And your kids never really never stop needing their parents, but at last we can see daylight. At the end of any month, we actually have a dollar or two left over. That, of course, means that we are going to invest wisely and… who are we kidding? It means we can buy our grandkids things we could not for our own kids. It means we may actually buy that condo on the Gulf.
If you have read this far in my rambling missive, I hope you are not looking for much in the way of answers. ‘Cause I don’t have them – actually, at this late stage I mostly have new questions. But I can share a little random wisdom from the ages:
- It is easier to gain weight than to lose it
- Taking a nap is not wrong.
- You need to maintain flexibility, mobility, and stability
- Health matters more than weight
- It’s more fun to buy cool stuff than to have a bucket o’ cash
- Life is too short to drink cheap wine
- Eat the best food you can afford
- Everything hurts, nearly every day, but hurting means you are alive
- The only easy day was yesterday
- There are too many books left to read
- Ditto music to discover
- Cool clothes are overrated
- Socks are overrated
- Shoes are not designed for the human foot
- Flip-flops are the perfect shoe
- Your faith matters, religion not so much
- True friends are a joy, but rare
- If you have dreams, pursue them. Now.
- If you still have your true love, you have all you need
What to do with the whole aging conundrum?
“Don’t get old”, a wise, elderly woman once told me. What she really meant was – “don’t get old, don’t let go of the will to age, don’t give up on your life, your dreams, your passions. Don’t give in to the aches and pains, the disappointments, the fears. Don’t let age rob you of your youth. Don’t get old and become stuck in your ways or refuse to learn something new. Don’t get old – or you will die, maybe not a physical death but a death indeed and then it’s just a matter of waiting for your number to come up. Keep living. Don’t get old!”
Like I said, Mrs. Osbonlighter was a wise woman.
So tomorrow, March 8th, is my birthday. I am another 365 days older, another year wiser, another annual trip around the sun, another step closer to eternity. Yes, my wife will make it special. Yes, my kids will remember me in some special way. Yes, I will get lots of Facebook “Happy Birthday” messages. Yes, I will remember to take my meds.
But, at the end of the day, my 63rd birthday will be just another day on earth.
And for that, I am grateful.