Until I turned 65, I thought aging was nature’s way of tormenting us for the mixed blessing of being alive, with all its joys and challenges. Now I recognize what it actually is: nature’s way of celebrating our experience of life, of giving meaning to our participation in the universe, and of providing a peek through the keyhole of eternity.
On Sunday, September 24, 2017, I was amazed, delighted, and touched to be the guest of honor at a surprise 65th birthday party—somehow pulled off by my husband in our own home with me there! (A friend whose husband shares my birthday was part of the ruse.)
The last time anyone gave me a surprise birthday party I was 14. And the friend who so gifted me was Sandee Crespy Kline, about whom I have written in this blog several times. Seven years ago today, Sandee died after a terrible battle with leukemia. And a year ago, her inconsolable husband, Mitch Kline, finally joined her in what is now their private paradise. So with all my heart, I dedicate my 65th birthday to them because they didn’t live to see theirs…and because they understood life and lived it to its highest purpose, touching so many others’ lives with joie de vivre and inspiration.
Perhaps most of all, what I absorbed from my time with my childhood friend, Sandee, whom I met when we were 7, was a sense of family and what it meant to belong to one. In our early years, I spent more time at Sandee’s house than at my own and became part of her extended family. When I met her, I had just lost my baby sister to adoption (the story is here). When we were 16 and Sandee met Mitch, we started going separate—but not separated—ways as they began a love affair that continues even now. But we stayed in touch, if not as closely as before. Then the day came 50 years later when my sister re-entered my world, and no one was more ecstatic about this reunion than the friend who had replaced her way back in 1959. (And when Sandee found out my sister had been raised Jewish, she was absolutely gleeful!) In one of life’s bittersweet ironies, Sandee got to meet Vicki Sue in October 2009, less than a year before she died. And the two girls switched places in my life one final time.
That was the last occasion on which I saw my friend well. A few months later, Sandee’s longstanding treatment for thrombocythemia, or excess platelets in the blood, caught up with her. Although the medications had prolonged her life, their devastating side effect of uncontrollable increased white blood cells took it on September 27, 2010. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless or useless as a friend. And this feeling rose up again when I did nothing to help her husband, Mitch, while he suffered with the rare brain cancer glioblastoma, which took his life last year.
So, yes, I bombed as a friend in need during two fatal illnesses and have survivor guilt. But what matters to me more is that these two people are still very much with me, especially Sandee, who as a lifelong friend still lives in my heart.
What does that mean, to live in someone’s heart? It sounds almost trite, part of a romantic song lyric from a bygone era. But it’s so much more than that. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned eternity. I didn’t do so lightly. Although I am a creative writer, and one that is fascinated by time and its implications for our experience of life within an incomprehensible infinity, I am no poet. But William Blake was, and he has the closest humanly possible answer to my question of how to hold a departed loved one in your heart beyond the tyranny of time: just look at the miracle in a grain of sand or peer into the infinite heart of a flower.
And speaking of sand, and the sands of time, I am blessed to have a friend who not only took some of the photos at my party, but who gave me a poem as a gift. It captures the waning days of summer as we enter autumn and she is thinking of her daughter (who also shares my birthday—that’s three!) and grandchildren. I am thinking of these warm days we’ve been having in the northeast becoming crisp, refreshing days of renewal as I enter the autumn of my life. I reprint my friend’s sentiments here with her permission, but without her name at her request.
Resisting the fall…
Coming up from the beach
Feeling a waft of chill air
The water’s edge behind us.
Heels sink deep in the sand
Taking our time with this walk
Resisting the movement to a more scheduled time.
Rinsing sandy feet
Breathing in the salt air
Blinking and trying to memorize the breaking waves.
Carrying a tote of damp towels and warm juice boxes
And a sandy library book
Away to the car, to home, to school.
Hoping for a sunny weekend return
This month or next
If homework, games and practices allow.
My favorite poem about time comes from T.S. Eliot in this excerpt from “Little Gidding,” one of his famous Four Quartets:
One thing I’ve learned in my 65 years is that getting older also means going deeper. Aging offers not only increased depth of experience, but a breadth of vision that you can touch from one end of your lifetime to the other simply by stretching your arms and embracing it. Life as we know it is measured, but experience beyond physical reality is not. It simply exists, now and forever, all at once, in the mind of God, Nature, the Universe, or however you conceive of the Creative Force.
So happy future birthdays to all of us, whatever our age or circumstances. Having survived uterine (endometrial) cancer, I can tell you that you can never drink enough of the nectar of life until your thirst for it overpowers a confrontation with death. I don’t know what lies on the other side of physical existence. But I believe that somewhere in time, our lives, our loves, and our contributions continue. And that they have meaning.
To my much-loved family, extended family, and dear friends who helped me celebrate last Sunday, thank you. I felt truly blessed by the gift of your presence. And a special hug and kiss to my husband, Farok, for making this happy celebration possible.
What you have all taught me is that we carry our personal universes within us throughout our sojourn on earth, and that means we experience life and go about it differently. But during a few shining moments of brilliant, warm clarity, we get to enter into one another’s private worlds and share a glorious unity that defies the boundaries of ego, daily cares and responsibilities, and private pain and pleasure. If only for those blessed few moments, we are privileged to share joy, which I believe gives us a peek at eternity.
To those that celebrate the Jewish holidays, I hope you had a happy Rosh Hashanah last week and will have a blessed Yom Kippur this Friday and Saturday, September 29–30, 2017.