It’s been the year of Big Birthdays in my family: an uncle turned 80, a cousin and I turned 70, my oldest ‘child’ turned 50. We are all in fine fettle, looking and acting younger than these grisly numbers imply, and most important: we are not dead. Yet.
Yet is the operative word here; inevitably, I began thinking about how much time–productive time–there was left for all of us. All those things left undone; all those dreams dying a slow death due to inaction or lack of resolve. That second book I haven’t written; that half year in Europe I haven’t been able to put together; will I ever realize those dreams?
My uncle is a case in point. A famous Musicologist, his options are more varied than most people’s; and at age 80, he was still leading a team of researchers working on reviving 18th century wind and string trios. Until he fell and broke his shoulder during a holiday. His life has become a painful struggle with his new, not improved shoulder, and the daily drugs do alleviate the pain but keep him, well, drugged. No more trips and certainly no more research until next year–and the doctors are saying that the best he can hope for is to extend his arm. This might, in fact, be the end of an illustrious academic career that saw him wining every single honour except the Nobel. He is lucky; a devoted wife, a dog and a sense of humour are keeping him going.
As for my 50 year old son, he is living the life of a typical late parent; a two year old daughter, an eight year old son and two stressful jobs as a Psychologist, keep him on a treadmill that leaves very little downtime, me-time or think-about-anything-except-the-thing-at hand time. His immune system is responding; he catches every cold and flu bug there is, but he doesn’t know how to slow down. He isn’t fond of talking about turning 50; he acts and looks a decade younger. Well, good for him; I hope his fifties are more productive and fun than mine were.
Fifty was a threshold year for me bringing with it the first whiff of old age, being an old bag, being diminished. My fifties were a kind of lost decade until I started writing for local papers and snapped out of the doldrums of tutoring ESL students. Turning 60 was a breeze; by now I was used to being ‘older’. In fact, my life improved considerably during my sixties; I wrote a book, I became a market researcher, I travelled to Europe. I also got cancer, but survived.
Then 70 arrived and it was like turning 50 again: frightening, but for different reasons. At 50, the country of old age and its burdens of ill health and lack of productivity was on my horizon, but I wasn’t living there. Yet. Now, I am so close to that place that any little thing–another bout with cancer, a serious fall–could land me there permanently. How many ‘good’ years do I have left? What is the best way to make the most of my time before, like my uncle, I fall and find myself in the country of the disabled?
There is no answer to that question. But I know that I want to wring every last drop of life from my days until I can no longer do so. I am busy planning a longer escape to Europe; maybe several months. Maybe I can just ignore my age over there; pretend I am age-less. Maybe I can settle down to writing the book that’s swirling ’round in my brain. Maybe I can have one last fling, make new friends, dance in Barcelona, or swim in the Meditteranean Sea lapping the golden sands of Sitges,
That’s why birthdays are not just for panicking; they are a reminder of the simple fact that our time here runs out. Ideally, they push us to actually get our act together before the final curtain falls.