Sometime tomorrow, I will complete the 64th year of my earthly life. That’s a slightly pretentious way of saying I’m having a birthday tomorrow, my 64th – or, as I like to say, one year more to Medicare!
A birthday is as special or as ordinary as one makes it. At minimum, a birthday is a good occasion to give thanks for being still alive and (at least in our culture) an opportunity for friends to show their friendship – even if it’s only “Facebook Friends” sending a perfunctory “Happy Birthday” message. Even that is special, after all, in that I would not be getting messages from most of those people at all if it weren’t for my birthday.
Perhaps more importantly, a birthday is a marker in the timeline of one’s life. When you’re young, there are lots of such markers to look forward to – becoming a “teenager”, then becoming old enough to drive, then old enough to vote, old enough to drink, etc. All those ages are more or less arbitrary, of course. (When I was the relevant age, those last two, for example, were in reverse order!)
Then there are the arithmetic markers that our obsession with youth and our anxieties about aging have invested with perhaps disproportionate significance – 30, then 40, then 50. When I was 20, the axiom of my generation was not to trust anyone over 30. So turning 30 was somewhat problematic – until we all turned 30! I do remember my 30th. (It was an icy Wisconsin Easter weekend 1978). But I don’t think I really attached too much serious significance to turning 30. When I reached 40, however, I threw myself a party, partly to counter-act the even sillier negativity that often surrounds that particular milestone - but also because, at that spectacularly unsuccessful period in my life, I realized that by then the journey was probably already half-over or (at best) close to half-over, and so it was a good time to celebrate what already was rather than look ahead to what might maybe never yet be.
When I was 12, reaching 50 seemed quite far away. I had an aunt who turned 50 that year. All summer long at our family outings at the Bronx’s Orchard Beach, my cousins and I jokingly kept referring to her as “Miss Half-Century of 1960.” Years later, however, when it became time to mark my own half century, I very happily celebrated the day with some parishioner friends at an Oscar Night Party at Planet Hollywood in Toronto. Compared to that infamous half-century mark, 60 seemed to pass much more modestly – perhaps because by then it had become the custom in my local community to acknowledge every single birthday with at least a special meal.
The advent of Social Security, I suppose, was what eventually turned 65 into one of the life’s major milestones. Of course, I now know people who are already retired in their 50s or early 60s – and others who don’t retire till later. (Among priests, retirement is an even more ambiguous status, which comes later, if at all). So for my generation at least, I think the event of qualifying for Medicare may have replaced “retirement” as the more universal, commonly shared experience.
So as I prepare to embark upon my 65th year at midnight tonight (or midnight tomorrow, depending on whatever legal system one is using to calculate it), while I readily recognize that the story is now closer to its end than to its beginning, I can still focus forward on the next true turning-point, the next major milestone in my timeline – Medicare, something to look forward to and now just one year away!