By Wayne Brown
Birthdays are a funny thing. From our youngest days, we know it is the one day of the year where we are guaranteed to be the star of the day. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, people have very strong feelings about that day. When we are young, and our parents are throwing the party, and our day is filled with balloons, cake, friends, family, and scads of presents; we think the day is our own personal national holiday, and we have another million of them to come. But then we go and screw things up by getting older.
If you are like me, and you suffered the loss of a family member at an overly young age, while birthdays are cause for celebration, they can also be somewhat like a countdown. I lost my father when he was 50 years old, and I was only 22. Since that day, 50 is the big number that I see hanging over my head, much bigger and brighter now, as my 40th approaches this Sunday. Birthdays are a mile-marker for many of us; a time for self-reflection or mental inventory of dreams and goals accomplished, anticipating, or changing. One of my friends who just turned 31 was listing all the things he thought he would have had by 30, that still evaded him, mainly, wife and kids. I was empathetic because I had that same feeling when I was turning 31. I know, for some ladies it may be strange to hear that some guys have that on our checklist, but some of us actually do.
We all have a checklist, a bucket list, a dreams list, or whatever you choose to call it; some list that may or may not be written down. A list of dreams you wish to accomplish in your lifetime. Making checkmarks on the list are very cool and offer a feeling of accomplishment and pride, but as the candles stack up, and the cake gets brighter, the light from those candles can seem to merely spotlight the unchecked items you most hoped to cross off the list.
I am extremely fortunate that many of my major items have been checked, or will be soon: live overseas, write a book, and teach were some of my big check-offs. All those have been accomplished, much to my pride and satisfaction. Now I would like to write book two. Adding items to the list is a necessary thing- it’s a showing that you have plans to be around for a while, and that you are making positive momentum. If your entire list is checked off when you are 25, you need to dream harder, and expand the list!
Soon I will be checking off the goal of being married. While I am doing it later than expected, the wait was worth it; and I am marrying my perfect woman- so it was worth the wait. Now, when or whether we have a family, only time will tell, but if it does happen, it’s another checkmark, meaning I have two spaces waiting to be filled in with new life goals.
I have a bunch of other items on my checklist, but that is not necessarily the focus of this piece. In my life, I have outlived multiple near-death experiences, a fairly harrowing accomplishment when you are still in your fourth decade of life. One of the most traumatic things I have lived through, I did publicly; and surprisingly, I do not consider it to be one of my near-death experiences. Being diagnosed with a (near) brain tumor when I was 32 changed my life perspective, and I would argue actually restored my freedom to live. Before that, I was slowly being killed by this tumor, and I didn’t even know it.
Within days of starting medication, I felt like a new man, and every day was a little better. Surgery would come six month later, and I knew almost right after I woke up that my life was mine to live now--- however I chose! I could live it as a patient with a tumor or as a person who is living their life as freely as they wish, who happens to have a medical history. It’s a difficult crossroads, and not everyone with medical challenges gets the chance to make this decision. I did have that choice, and I chose the latter. Like so many choices in life, it is the more difficult and more rewarding choice.
Since my surgery, recovery, fallback, readjustment, and stability, I have had several birthdays pass. The next major milestone is mere hours away… Last year, when 39 hit, I was somewhat melancholy but accepting of it, inventorying all I had not yet checked off from my list yet. While I had dated before, I never even came close to getting it right, and now 40 is on the way. Oh well… I guess, if I am meant to spend my entire life single, I will make my life as amazing as possible.
Thirty-nine has been a fun year. I guess it goes to the theory that there is no freer a man than one who has nothing to lose. I am sure that this new attitude played no small part in readying myself to find the love of my life. But even if I hadn’t… even if it was still me and the pups at home… I had carved quite a great life for myself. I had amazing family and friends who I loved, and they felt the same about me, I had created a cause for support that I turned into a charity that was helping people the world over, and I had a routine I enjoyed where I could still escape it all in my home, where my sanctuary was.
Now 40 is about to be in the rear-view before I know it. The theme of the party, you ask? “It’s the end… of his 30’s.” Some fiancé, I know… What can I say; her sense of humor is corrupted, broken, and just like mine! She came up with this theme on one of our first dates, and so far everyone has thought it’s brilliant!
Seemingly hours after my 40th, I will be married. What happens from there, I don’t know. I bet you are thinking that now that I am in wedded bliss, I have shaken my birthday phobias. Oh, au contraire. Phobias are not necessarily rational fears, and a new piece of jewelry will not conquer them; but maybe I understand this one better. Now that I will be married, the fear is even stronger, and the stakes are even higher. When it was just me, if I died tomorrow, who would care, really? Sure, my family and friends would miss me, someone would need to take over management of the charity, and someone would need to take care of the dogs. As soon as all that has settled down, I felt like my life was effectively settled. All paid up, no IOU’s. Now that I am to be married, I have someone else to worry about! Oh man!!!
This reality of responsibility was smacked over my head mere weeks ago, when my cousin, of only 43 years, was taken from the earth thanks to a massive heart attack. No warnings. No bright lights. No sirens flashing. He was there in the morning taking care of his wife and kids, went to work, laughed and joked with his friends, maybe had a light lunch, and by dinnertime, his wife was a widow and his kids lost their dad. It is, to say the least, earth-shattering.
Now, I am not switching places with my parents or my cousin, but I think that it was cause for alert in me. I needed to take inventory of my world/birthday view. I needed to stop with the, if I go tomorrow, my life can be swept away with a little paperwork and some Kleenex. I don’t know if I am going tomorrow, or in a hundred years, but I am going to seize every day.
That said, if you think I am not watching the clock for my 44th birthday, and then my 51st birthday, you need to take off the rose-colored glasses, or at least tilt them a smidge. My fiancé embraces every birthday as a huge party, and I adore her for that. It reminds me of growing up with my dad, who used to celebrate “birthday month.” After he was gone, I just didn’t care as much about the day. Sorry, I just didn’t. It wasn’t the same. And honestly, it wasn’t until my fiancé got so excited about her birthday that I really drew the connection in what made me change so much. I kept asking her why she was so excited, and her answers were so simple, of being with friends, enjoying another year, and of course delicious cake! Hmmm… Maybe I needed to take a longer look at this birthday thing, focusing on the excitement, rather than anticipating what birthday party I would not be attending.
We were talking this past weekend about upcoming birthdays, we were joking about the 40th, and naturally for me, 50 was on my mind. As the conversation wound that way, my eyes got a little wet. I said that to me, the 51st was far more important than 50, so she asked the logical question: should the big party be 51 instead of 50? I said no. Let’s make 50 a bash, so we can enjoy it. She smiled and said that was fine, and that 51 would be a fantastic birthday with family around. I smiled and agreed.
Dreading a milestone birthday isn’t a negative connotation, as far as I am concerned. Yes, it is just a number, but we only get a certain amount of those numbers, and I am really enjoying the ride, so why would I want to get off? Have you ever been to a great show where, at intermission, you are raving about what a great show it is and how you want to see the show go on and on? Some of us are blessed and cursed with a hyper-awareness of mortality. We are not more or less emotionally healthy than you are, and you needn’t feel the compulsion to correct us. I love my life, and I hope I live for another hundred years. That said, I know it is fairly unlikely.
I would love to have a family, and watch my great-great-grandchildren get married. Fairly unlikely, but we will see what medical technology has in its future. This skepticism doesn’t mean I am fatalistic or unhappy, quite the contrary. I love my life and wouldn’t trade it with anyone at all. All it means is that I have a greater awareness of lifespan than you might, at least at this point right now. And we are both right, for how it works best for us. Please don’t try to force my eyes closed, and I will not try to pry your lids open. We both know what is there, and both of us have our own systems for managing it.
Whatever happens happens, and obviously we have no control over it. That said, I am still going to keep one eye on the clock… at least until I break the ceiling of my 51st birthday. If you understand all of this and it makes sense to you, you are welcome to come to the party. If you want to fight me on whether I am right for feeling the way I do, I am eating your slice of cake!