Thoughts on birthdays

3 minute read
What will you have engraved on your tombstone? (Photo by Adam Jones, via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
What will you have engraved on your tombstone? (Photo by Adam Jones, via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

“Does anyone ever realize life while they live it. . .every, every minute?”

“No. Saints and poets maybe. . .they do some.”

— Thornton Wilder

I just had a birthday. I’m not going to tell you how old I am, because of you, not because of me. You know the reasons. So, let's just say, as Jerry Herman did, “Somewhere between forty and death.”

I love my birthday. I haven’t always. I dreaded that tacked-on year like the dust storm encompassing a city in a Depression-era photograph. It was another year I was yet to be the place I was supposed to be. Another year that I seemed to be gladly celebrating my friends’ lives ascending and me floundering and questioning where and what was I supposed to be.

It wasn’t really my fault. It was genetic. I didn’t know my mother’s age until my grandmother let it slip when I was 11. My mother was mortified. It was then all hushed up, and her actual age was never brought up again, until her cover was blown when we moved to Los Angeles and my mother’s younger sister didn’t lie about her age.

But even if not a secret, as it was for my mother, it is a private fact — however we feel personally about another calendar year, society will have its own opinion and judge us for it. When we hit a particular birthday, are we over the hill or the embodiment of the wisdom of the ages? After an arbitrary age we are all too frequently passed over for jobs involving skills we have already demonstrated and are often invisible to the society around us.

My mother never conquered her vanity of age. When my father died 20 years ago, I went with my mother to pick out the headstone. Since my family is a big believer in humor, including all forms of gallows humor, it was actually a fairly pleasant day. Sad, sweet jokes and memories. As the saleswoman was tallying our account, my mother turned and with a cold, serious eye declared, “When I die, I don't want my birth date on my headstone.” Silence, then the woman carefully explained that she had never ordered a stone like that. My mother insisted she had seen it, and it was what she wanted.

Six years later she died. I picked out her headstone. No birth date. Though we all knew the year she was born, maybe it was silly, but it was hers, private. It was a fitting last wish if you had known her.

But years before, on my golden birthday (your age matches your date of birth), I decided to change my fate. The cure was to celebrate every year and to count how many times I would have/could have/should have died. (I asked my husband and son if they ever compiled such a list. The same silence as the headstone saleswoman and the roll of eyes. I was shocked, shocked, that they hadn’t thought of doing them.)

But, we all have a couple of incidents, if not a long list:

  • My mother wearing rubber-soled shoes when she grabbed me off the electrified pole when I was six.
  • An emergency appendectomy when I was eight.
  • The kind man who yanked me out of a riptide when I was 13.
  • All the way to the screeching brakes when I was stupidly talking on my phone as I jaywalked on a busy street last year.

And my luck/fate/happenstance has worked both ways. Maybe not as often, but I’ve been able to pay it forward:

  • My friend’s desperate suicide call in college.
  • The three-year-old boy who fell in the pond with no other adults around to jump in after him.
  • And a few of my own screeching brakes for others' momentary carelessness.

Well, I’m no saint and at best I can put together a simple line couplet, but whether by chance, someone’s quick thinking, or medical science, I have a list. I might not like the wrinkles, but my list does help remind me of how lucky I am that they have the years to accumulate.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation