Another birthday, the seventy-third since my actual day of birth, is looming.
There will be no celebrations to mark the occasion—no gathering of family and friends, no gifts, and most mercifully, no public rendition of that ubiquitous birthday song by a bored, yet dutiful, cadre of restaurant servers. Rather, the occasion will be marked only by a fond embrace from the one who has been alongside for all but the first twenty of those anniversaries.
It’s always been this way for me, I suppose, and definitely by choice. The last real celebration I remember was for my twenty-first, when my parents planned the party to honour the passage of their firstborn from boyhood to manhood. As if it had happened all at once on that given day.
The child is father of the man…, Wordsworth memorably observed in 1802, and so it has always seemed to me. But truth be told, I don’t believe, in all the years spent being a man since then, that I ever left the boy behind. He lurks behind the adult mask, only rarely emerging, as though fearing he’s no longer welcome. I search him out sometimes, if only to reassure him.
I don’t really remember that twenty-first celebration, of course, it having occurred more than fifty years ago. But I do have photographs to remind me of the momentous occasion—washed-out Kodachromes of people who meant the most to me back then—some gone now to their spiritual reward, others, like me, to adulthood.
My mother and dad grace several of the photos, beaming with parental pride (I’ve always chosen to assume), both decades younger than I am now. How can that be, I wonder, and where did those years go?
My siblings—a brother and three sisters—all stand with me in other pictures, our arms around each other, full of that relentless, youthful optimism that has not yet encountered the eroding onslaught of time. But it did assail us eventually, and we have survived.
A couple of close friends were present, both slightly older than I, and eminently wiser (or so I imagined, on account of their earlier entry into manhood). Regrettably, one of those relationships has not survived the passage of years, the result of indifference and lack of effort, I suspect, on both our parts. The other, however, remains a fast and true friend to this day—and he, too, like me now, is well-launched into his eighth decade. Imagine!
Most dear of all in those faded photos is my high school sweetheart of the time, smiling happily, if a tad uncertainly, still getting to know the large, somewhat strange family whose son she was keeping company with. On that day, we were still two years removed from the moment when she would accept my proposal of marriage, and she, I’m sure, had no idea right then that such a fate awaited her. Even I, it must be said, had only begun to suspect she might be the one. That longed-for wisdom prevailed, I suppose.
Anyway, that’s the last big celebration I recall. There were many so-called milestone birthdays along the way—the thirtieth (Never trust anyone over thirty!), the fortieth (Forty is the new thirty!), the fiftieth and sixtieth (the golden years, so dubbed by those who couldn’t avoid them), and even the seventieth (entry point to the last of the three stages of life: youth, adulthood, and You’re Looking Good!). But they never impacted momentously on me. They were just one more marker in a so-far-endless progression of years, gratefully attained, yet no more important than any of the others.
Among the most special greetings I receive each year are those from my two daughters, both of whom endearingly insist that I’m not old, I look terrific, and I’m every bit as good as I once was.
“Hmmm,” I tell them, “maybe I’m as good once as I ever was!”
For the past fourteen years, I’ve been blessed to hear from a younger set, my grandchildren, five in number, who cannot for the life of them understand why there isn’t a big party on my special day, with balloons, and cake, and lots of presents. Not to mention the goodie bags they get at their friends’ birthday parties.
“Don’t you like parties, Gramps?” one might ask.
“Don’t you have any friends, Grandpa?” pipes up another.
So I tell them I’ve had more birthdays than I have friends and family combined, and that on my birthday, I’m more than content just to have my grandchildren near, and loving me.
“Oh, we love you, Gramps,” they affirm. “But goodie bags are still a good idea, y’know.”
I do know. My goodie bag has been overflowing for seventy-three years.