As I write this, I am about to begin my last day as a fifty-something. Yes, in a matter of a few short hours I hit the big six zero. Okay, nothing unusual, we’ve all either done it or expect to do it. And, as Maurice Chevalier so aptly put it, “Growing old is not so bad when you consider the alternative.” But I was someone who always seemed to obsess about age, and birthdays, particularly those with a zero involved, were stressful times for me. A year ago I found myself dreading the feelings that I would be going through now. But, happy to report, something strange happened along the road to Geezerville. Not exactly sure what, maybe I just finally grew up, something I’ve tried to avoid doing for as long as I can remember. So now I’m having what appears to be the best major milestone birthday of my existence, and, me being me, I feel compelled to screw it up by trying to figure out why. So here goes:
Simple fact of life #1: Who you are is the sum of the experiences that you have had.
Simple corollary to the above: What matters most are the things that you learned since the time that you knew everything.
So, it was 1969, and I, like any 17 year old, knew everything. Well, except maybe for a few minor details, like how the world works and how I could fit into it. But I knew the important things, like “Rock & Roll is here to stay” and “Never trust anyone over 30.” It was, after all, only a couple years removed from the summer of love. But fast forward a bit and I still haven’t sorted out those minor details, so I’m just marking time in junior college when my plan to beat the draft seems to have just fallen apart. Birthday #20 approaches and I am stressed.
Birthday #30 wasn’t really so bad, other than the fact that I was coming face to face with what I knew when I knew everything. Beat the draft plan B was to join the Navy, so I did three years and got out. But, of course, the military isn’t really the best place to learn how to fit into the real world, but there’s a plan B for that also. After a year and a half of kicking around at dead-end jobs, I decide to go back into the Navy and make a career of it. Single and care-free, life wasn’t so bad. However, as the birthday neared, I became more and more aware of the wispy cloud hanging over me. I could in no way still consider myself a kid, and I was still marking time. And in that decade of my life, during one second of the time while I was out of the Navy, I came to grips with…
Simple fact of life #2: Nobody lives forever.
I learned that in a totally meaningless life-changing moment. I was working on a construction job, and due to a stupid mistake, I fell off of the structure that I was working on. In that second, I believed that I was going to fall 15 feet and land head-first on concrete. As it was, I fell 18 inches and landed flat on my back on plywood. No injury whatever. But what stuck with me was what went through my mind in that second. I wasn’t scared or upset about dying. I was mad about being so stupid as to kill myself. Ever since then, I have had no fear of death. Maybe I worry about how, but not when.
#40 had to be the worst birthday in the best part of my life. Married for a few years to a beautiful young woman, we had just found out that our first child was on the way. And I had just reported to a new duty station for what I knew would be my final assignment in the Navy. So there I was, all grown up, facing genuine adult responsibilities, three years away from leaving the only job I knew, and still clueless about the real world. Frequent actual panic attacks, brought on by an overwhelming sense of foreboding.
Birthday #50 was a bit more mellow, but not entirely stress-free. With support from my wife, I had completed the transition to civilian life, and we were settled in the place that I expect to call home for the rest of my days. But I had been kicking around for a few years at jobs that I was ill-suited for, and by then had two young children to worry about. I got my commercial driver license a few weeks before, and I spent my 50th birthday in Wyoming with Mark the driver trainer (he bought me ice cream, not dinner, just desert).
Which brings us to today, and how I feel about turning 60. I’m still driving a truck, and being reasonably successful at it. And in recent times I have finally figured out…
Simple fact of life #3: You can’t plan the past, only the future. So the older you get, the simpler life becomes.
I was always one who more than anything else, wanted to keep things simple. In my younger days, I thought I could do that by refusing to grow up or accept adult responsibilities. There was always my parents, or the school, or the Navy to do my thinking for me. But none of that can last forever, and eventually I had to do for myself. So I did.
And as I embark on my seventh decade of wandering this planet, I am keenly aware that I can no longer plan my life, since most of it is in the past. Sure, things aren’t completely simple yet, I still have a daughter in high school, and I certainly hope to keep going at least until she graduates. But after that, although I don’t expect to have any desire to quit breathing or even quit working, a weight will have been lifted from me. I can look death in the face knowing that I have discharged my life’s responsibilities. What a great, simple place to be!
So here I am, in the final hours of my fifties. The bucket list is getting pretty short, less because things are checked off as done, as much as they are erased. But I still have my whole life, even though it’s mostly memories. And there is plenty worth remembering. I’ll make a point of listening to some ’60’s music on my 60th.