My mother-in-law once described herself as an O.P. smoker, meaning she never purchased her own cigarettes, but occasionally enjoyed a puff of someone else’s, creating the term “Other People’s” (cigarette) smoker. I could stick that label on my attitude toward birthdays: I love Other People’s birthdays, just not my own.
I used to love my birthday. The moment the calendar flipped to July, I felt butterflies in my stomach and the countdown commenced. And not because of the presents, or the cake. My presents were typically very practical items; and, shockingly to those who know me only as an adult, I didn’t even like birthday cake as a kid, unless it was manufactured in a factory and stamped with a Hostess logo. It wasn’t about the attention either. Anyone with old-school summer birthdays knows; they were a non-event. You were lucky if one or two neighborhood pals were rounded up to sing off-key as you blew out all your candles.
Despite these issues, childhood birthdays were magical, encapsulating the sheer joy of advancing in age. The body and mind shape-shifting in ways that were fascinating rather than disturbing. Reluctant to admit you were only nine; searching for any excuse to boast you were now 10. The implication being that with every advancing year, you were a new and improved version of your former software.
The opposite of this syndrome occurs today. The older I get, the fonder I grow of the special number I’m forced to abandon. This year I would rather not swap 56 for 57. Friendly and well-rounded, 56 is the product of one of my favorite multiplication equations as well as a popular Bingo number. The prime number 57 is an odd, awkward loner, giving me a long, uncomfortable stare from across the room. But sure enough, by this time next year I will have decided 57 is not creepy after all – just introverted, and far preferable to 58.
“Birthdays are better than the alternative,” my father-in-law, who lived to be 96, would often proclaim. And I grudgingly admit, he was spot-on. So, if I believe this wisdom to be true, then why the angst? Why the dread? Why is the day after my birthday the most soothing day of the year because it’s officially the longest wait before I have another?
The irony in this situation is rich: growing older is truly filled with a lot of plusses. Take, for example, parenting your youngest child. You are often the oldest adult in the parental friend group. This can be intimidating, as most of the younger necks have enviable elasticity; but it can also be uplifting, to possess the confidence and knowledge to play the role of the parental prophet, comforting the younger, fretful, less-experienced parents with “this too shall pass” advice. “Let us not mire ourselves in the battles of our children,” sayeth the wizened old mother of her third or fourth child, “childhood friendships, like the tides, ebb and flow. Besides, I am so over-eth this, so can we go forth and drinketh wine together instead?”
Once we start to notice the cosmic hourglass, to mind the meter, to watch the odometer rack up the nines — not only will young people not understand this example, but they may never realize they were deprived of watching some very cool moments take place, when non-digital odometers, reminiscent of our ancient clock-radios, slowly crept forward into a fresh numerical realm — once we witness Ma Nature glancing at her watch and writing something on her clipboard, suddenly there’s some pressure. Instead of dawdling and meandering down life’s merry way, we feel we should maybe pay a little more attention to where we are going.
When the actual birthdate arrives, it’s our senses to the rescue. SEE a friendly face or a funny text; HEAR a message of love on voicemail — or better yet — in person, even if it’s an off-key rendition of Happy Birthday that makes you squirm; FEEL an old school birthday card in your hand, or the embrace of a loved one; SMELL the scent of your favorite treat, flower or of birthday candles once they’ve been extinguished. And of course, the most important sense to the aging averse: TASTE. Nothing compares to the taste of our favorite meal and dessert of choice on our special day. Our senses bring us back to the present moment, reminding us to savor the past, plan for the future but LIVE for today.