Are you one of the millions of people who dread getting older? Do you cringe at the thought of another birthday cake loaded with candles? You’re not alone. I used to feel that way too until I realized that birthdays truly are something to celebrate.
It’s funny because as kids we looked forward to our birthdays. I guess everyone has at one point or another asked a child, “How old are you?” and been told gleefully, “I’m 3 years and 4 months old,” or something like that – probably while the child is holding up fingers and grinning from ear to ear. Every year and every month is counted with pride when you’re young.
We start to dread those birthdays
And then we get older. And at some point we not only don’t just look forward to our birthdays, we actually begin to dread them. Why? Because that birthday just reminds us that we are indeed getting older. More than just GETTING older, it may make us feel like we ARE old. And in our society, being old – or just older – isn’t a good thing.
So we start dreading the birthdays and we make jokes about burning the house down with the candles on our cake. You know all the age-related jokes. You’ve either made some or you’ve been on the receiving end of them. Interesting how the same joke can be funny or not depending on whether you’re making it or are the butt of it.
I’d been that way myself. I’d gotten to the point where I hated getting older. I remember the year I turned 40. I hated that number! It could have been because I was at a place in my life where things were tough – I still had young kids at home and my job was draining the lifeblood out of me. It wasn’t a milestone I looked forward to reaching.
Turning 40 made me feel old. There was no way I could even pretend to be a spring chicken any more. I was tired (three kids probably make even younger women tired!) and I felt stuck. Adding that huge number just made me depressed.
When birthdays become precious
However, by the time I turned 50 I had a completely different attitude. You see, by this birthday, I’d had the experience of burying a friend.
She was 48 when she died unexpectedly. No, it wasn’t a car wreck or a long drawn-out illness. She simply got sick and just never got well. After a couple of days she was put into the hospital where she died from heart complications. I was absolutely shocked when I got the call that she was gone.
We weren’t the type of friends who saw each other every day but we were still close enough that it was like a punch in the stomach to learn that she’d died. She was two months older than me. That realization was like a bucket of ice cold water poured over my head. How could someone so young just….die?
All of the sudden, I didn’t feel quite so old any more.
There is something about burying people your own age that forever changes the way you view your own mortality. No longer can you delude yourself with the belief that you’ve got all the time in the world. You can’t tell yourself that you’re “too young” to think about things like funerals, wills, taking care of yourself, and such. Time becomes a precious commodity – one that is limited and becoming more limited every day.
Now you can let the realization that you’re not going to live forever affect you in one of two ways. You can either get depressed at every birthday because that extra candle represents time that you’ll never get back, or you can celebrate each birthday because it’s proof that you’re still here. You’re still alive and kicking and you’ve just completed one more trip around the sun.
Hopefully, we all get older
The day I turned 50 I looked in the mirror and saw what all of us do at that age. I saw a middle-aged woman staring back at me. Gone was the young woman I’d been. Over the years I’d added pounds, lines, and gray hairs. But instead of feeling depressed because I was “old”, I felt grateful that I’d had the privilege of greeting this day. I reminded myself that my friend would have given anything to have seen her 50th birthday cake – as would her family.
Now that a few years have passed since the 50th birthday (I don’t have to say how many – hey, a girl doesn’t have to tell everything!), I’ve thought more about the relatives in my life who also left this earth too early.
There is my paternal grandmother. She developed breast cancer and died before she was 56. There was my father’s younger sister who died at age 58 from breast cancer. My father’s older sister also passed away before she was 60 from another form of cancer. Perhaps genetics weren’t on my side and I’d better enjoy every year as best I could.
I remember my mother used to talk about her birthdays after she reached the age of 60. My father would make some crack about how she was “getting old”. I’m sure he thought it was funny – they did like to tease each other. But what I remember was my mother getting very serious and replying that she wasn’t afraid to get old because it was a privilege denied to so many. That’s the attitude I want to adopt as my own.
So feel free to tease me about my age. Feel free to make a joke about how the cake can’t stand up to the weight of all the candles or how they set off the smoke detector. I don’t care – I’m just grateful to be here celebrating another birthday.
Have you had a birthday that was particularly hard for you to deal with?