The problem with birthdays, of course, is that they keep occurring. At three, you sight a birthday as a festival wholly unearned but entirely appropriate. At five, you are already adding age in months or fractions to speed the process. A child might inform you, ’”I’m 5 and ½, thank you.” Of course, today he may simply tell you that he is old enough. Old enough for what, you might wonder, but if you have parental experience behind you, you certainly won’t ask.
Fifteen seems a watershed, perhaps because we place some value on sixteen. “Sweet Sixteen” and “Sixteen Candles” suggest some rite of passage. But what rite exactly? At twelve we have First Communions and at thirteen the Mitzvahs, Bar and Bat. What passage occurs at sixteen? Certainly not ’never been kissed’, not today, and states are upping the age of driving from sixteen to eighteen. Why the eager rush to push fifteen into sixteen?
Eighteen I understand. Eighteen is out of high school and able to vote, steps into recognized adulthood, proofs that you have endured tedium and irrelevance. Twenty-one I understand. Twenty-one is legal drinking. Twenty-one is full adulthood. But, of course, adulthood turns out to be not what was promised.
Somewhere around thirty-five you realize that forty is creeping up. Oh. My. God. Forty and youth irretrievably gone, unrecoverable. (But, of course, you look around and see people forty and older trying desperately to recover their youth or at least their youthfulness.)
I can’t and won’t speak for women, but for men, somewhere near fifty it becomes crushingly clear that your dreams are just that, remnants not to be collected or realized. You won’t be a major league ballplayer, or a great artist, or a celebrated rock musician. You haven’t spent your time working to be any of these, but somehow the dream remained in a small place in your mind. After fifty, that place empties out.
After fifty, sixty is a breeze. Seventy promises to be a lower hurdle. You just sort of wish that people would not put your birthday on their calendars, but they do, and you still note the birthdays of others on your calendar. What do good manners dictate about the birthday of the aging? “Happy Birthday. You’re another year older, another step closer to the grave. Be happy?”
Browning lied. Age may be the last of life but it is not at all the best for which the rest was made. (Did he learn this himself as Elizabeth slipped into drug addiction and depression? Likely, as he never wrote a similar absurdity.) I know several people my age and older who age, as we say, gracefully. They are all, each in his or her way, people who take, and likely always have taken, life as it comes not as they might have desired it to happen.
For those who haven’t quite figured it out yet, life does get in the way. All the dreams of youth, the hopes of young adults, the plans of middle age, all get interrupted by living. Children get born. (Where did that come from?) Lovers and friends, parents and siblings die. Disease and pain intrude. Turds float to the top in business and politics.
Finally our bodies begin to reprove us for the follies of our living. What is history to others is living memory to you. It all changes, and nothing changes. Others seem more hurried, more vocal, less thoughtful, less courteous. You are what you have always been, a bit slower, a little leaner (if not in body at least in spirit), a little quieter. And the birthdays keep piling up.
If the problem with birthdays is that they keep occurring, the bleak joy is that they do occur at all.
“The whole problem of life is to get enough moments crowded into it so the places between won’t be so deadly.” (Richard Meeker [Forman Brown], Better Angel, 1933.)