Monday, November 1, 2010

Those Landmark Birthdays

Remember a time when landmark birthdays automatically meant fun?

Sixteen? Driving -- and freedom in a new way!
Eighteen? Off to college and/or out of the house!
Twenty-one? You were legal in many more ways!
After that, it gets a bit more complicated. 

How did you welcome 30? 40? 50? 

If you're like most Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, how you greet a landmark
birthday is a whole different experience from the milestones in your parents' lives.

A half century ago, thirty was getting middle-aged and the forties and fifties were definitely approaching geezer territory. I remember my parents greeting 50 with sad resignation, observing that they were, in fact, truly old and that life was not destined to change much for the better. 

It's different today. My friend Jerry spent his 50th birthday skydiving and another friend Steve celebrated that landmark with a trek through the Amazon. I spent my 50th birthday at my psychotherapy internship, struggling to work with warring, screaming, court-ordered couples who seemed to be competing with each other for featured spots on "The Jerry Springer Show."  At the time, I felt a bit sorry for myself, but on reflection chose to see the occasion as positive preparation for a new career and life direction.

On my father's 60th birthday, he got a telemarking call from Forest Lawn cemetery, offering a deal on burial plots. He took to his bed in a total funk, muttering about life being over.

Shortly after my brother turned 60, new life was the focus as he and his wife welcomed their daughter Grace into the world.

And as time goes on, a new sentiment kicks in: gratitude for growing older. So your shape isn't as sleek as it might have been or your hair as abundant or your face as line-free as in years past. But you've been blessed with yet another birthday, landmark or not.

Some of my close female college friends haven't been nearly as fortunate:

My beloved friend Marie never lived to be 30. She was murdered by her husband just shy of her 29th birthday.

And Lorraine, who died suddenly at 42, never to see her daughters graduate from college, marry, enjoy successful careers and never to meet her grandchildren.

And Jane, whose birthday was two weeks after mine and with whom I was planning to celebrate a blow-out dual 50th birthday party, died of lung cancer two months short of the big day.

And Cheryl, my college roommate for the first two years at Northwestern and a very special person in my life, died of cancer shortly after her 60th birthday.

I think of the landmark birthdays I've had that they -- and so many others -- never reached. And I grieve for them and feel incredible gratitude for the time I've been given.

This is not to say that someone else's landmark birthday can't be a shock. 
When I was 26 and he was 41, my friend Maurice, a television and film actor, and I were a couple. However, the 15 year age difference felt huge and, eventually, was our undoing as we went our separate ways romantically. Still, as a friend, he didn't seem THAT old.  But last week, Maurice turned 80. A former boyfriend is now 80!!! I was stunned when his voice on the phone sounded the same as always. And I was delighted to hear that he was welcoming his 80th birthday with joy.  "Isn't it incredible?" he laughed. "I never imagined I'd ever be 80. I'm so glad I'm here to celebrate!" A cancer survivor, Maurice is continuing to work as an actor and recently had two film offers.

A new friend Tom, who spends about three hours at the gym nearly every day and much of the rest of his time leading serious hikes through the surrounding desert and mountains here, looks 50, but also just welcomed his 80th birthday. 

The vigor and joy of these somewhat older friends is an inspiration.
They underscore the fact that a landmark birthday is just a number -- and a frame of mind. One can dread the day and moan about growing older or celebrate the gift of growing older and live fully and joyously through each day.

My brother Mike turned 62 today.  There are many ways that 62 can be a landmark, not the least as early Social Security eligibility. However, Mike is choosing a different path: he celebrated his birthday today by starting a challenging new job at a major university and relocating, with his wife and toddler daughter, to an area they have always loved and wanted to explore together.

I can't imagine a better way -- for him -- to mark this birthday!

Happy, memorable 62nd, Mike! And may you have many, more more!

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