My ninety-nine year old grandmother died peacefully in her bed one night. Just two weeks prior, she’d been well enough to play bridge with her friends. She suffered no debilitating disease, no extended pain or suffering, no tragedy. When I tell people this, they say, “that’s the way to go.”
I agree. But if that’s so, why do we have such a problem with birthdays and aging? As far as I can tell, there’s no express elevator that will take you straight from 25 to 99. You have to get old before age can claim you quietly in the night. You have to do the time—if you’re lucky enough to get it.
When I celebrated my birthday last week, it looked the same: luscious lopsided coconut cake, loud family members all talking at the same time, presents. But it felt different. Not because I was turning 45 and that’s half way to 50, or to 90 (depending on your perspective). It felt different because I have changed.
My grandmother’s funeral is not the only one I've gone to in recent years. In fact, despite my grief at her loss, I felt such a sense of relief at her service because her passing made sense. Ninety-nine years makes a generous life in anybody’s book. The other funerals I attended, however, did not make sense. They all bore the unbearable and nonsensical weight of tragedy: my daughter's 6 year old friend, lost in a car accident. My own childhood friend, also lost in a car accident, along with her husband. A plane crash. Cancer.
To drive the point of life’s fragility home, I had three occasions to get a close look at the face of my own mortality during these years. I endured a dog attack, a cycling accident and most recently, a car accident.
After the car accident, I didn’t know if the other driver would live. I could feel death mulling around at the scene, peering in the window of the other car, breathing heavily on the back of my neck. The police patted my knee and marveled at my luck. When I got home, I took stock. The trappings of my own life looked distant, as if I were a ghost in my own house. What had I last written in my journal? Had I left food in the fridge? How dirty were the bathrooms?
As I’d seen happen with others, the details of the smallest instant had made a difference of unfathomable proportion. Except this time the instant had turned in my favor.
In the context of tragic grief and loss, birthdays aren’t such a bad thing. When we celebrate them, we tend to look forward, counting how many years might be left, seeing the additional candle on the cake as the mark of yet another year taken away.
But why not see the candle as another year given? If death is walking along beside us every day, then our proximity to it isn’t so closely related to our age as it is to our luck. In that sense, birthdays don’t bring us closer to death; they simply bring us closer to oldness and the privilege of dying quietly in our beds.
So this year on my birthday, instead of looking forward to the supposedly diminished number of years on my docket, I turned around and looked backward.
45 years! That’s 16,425 days, and in not one of them did I want for food or shelter (unless you count that time 20 years ago when a friend and I drove to Dewy Beach mistakenly expecting party acquaintances to put us up on their couch).
45 years! A birthday I could easily have missed, and one that others I know will miss, did miss. The only way I know to respect that loss is to celebrate, appreciate. Otherwise, you’re standing there having eaten half a pie complaining that half the pie is gone when you should be raving gratefully about how good it was.
During her final years, my grandmother told me that she always surprised herself when she woke up in the mornings. Not sure of when the end might come, she’d open her eyes and say, “Oh! I’m still here! Well, I may as well get out of bed!” That’s a living in the NOW that would probably be hard for the rest of us spring chickens to replicate, but perhaps we can manage it once a year, when we celebrate another year given, on our backward looking birthdays.