Been quite a long time since I wrote anything here (and apologies for that—my bandwidth is limited these days) but last weekend I turned 70 years of age and it does not seem right to let that pass without comment.
“Last weekend I turned 70.” That is a statement I never expected to make. Even aside from the cancer, given my family history, the ways in which I beat the crap out of my body for most of my life, and my lengthy laundry list of chronic maladies, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that I’m still here.
And yet, I still am. So, what to make of that?
One of the great benefits of receiving the “upgrade” of my cancer to Stage Four in July of 2017 has been the opportunities for growth and contemplation finding myself in the position of “dead man walking” has afforded me.
Of course, I have no way of knowing how I’d feel about passing this milestone absent that terminal prognosis because that’s not what has occurred. But what has happened is that I have enjoyed damned near two and a half years of “grace” now, in which I’ve been spurred to consider my upcoming mortality and review the arc of my life story with a clarity and focus many folks don’t have the chance to experience.
And now, we add to the mix that “big number.” I’ve never before been one who takes much note of birthdays. At least not since my adolescence when I, like all my peers, dealt with a succession of artificially designated “qualifying ages.”
16 to get a driver’s license, with the independence and freedom of movement that go with that for a kid who lives beyond the bus lines; 18 to register for the draft and seriously start to figure out what the hell to do personally about a war I’d been protesting and resisting for three or four years by then; 21 to finally be able to cast a ballot. [Oh, yeah, at 21 I could legally buy a drink too. Although, at the time, my focus was much more directed at things that were prohibited at any age.]
So, yeah. Over the years I’ve watched friends do all kinds of freaking out when they hit 30 (remember “don’t trust anybody over 30”?), 40, 50, 60. But for me, it’s always been sort of “meh.” Well, maybe 50 a little bit as I found my internal monolog cranking out phrases like “entering my second half-century.” But even that was more a case of “hmmm, well that’s interesting” than anything else.
I think when I hit those earlier so-called milestones there was more a sense of accomplishment for having gotten this far than anything else. But this seems to be playing out very differently for me.
Trying to unpack it, I think a lot of it probably does have to do with the fact that I’ve been in “dead man walking” mode for a couple of years now. And that brings with it a couple of things.
The first is, quite simply, surprise that I am indeed still alive. When I first got the official word that I’d been upgraded to Stage Four and that “this is only going to end one way,” I asked the oncologist for her best guess, for planning purposes, on roughly how much time I could expect before the dank bastard shows up to tap me on the shoulder.
She said typically a year or two. She gave me that framework in July of 2017. That’s two and a half years ago. And although my baseline daily “how ya feeling” is certainly crappier than it was then, I’m not feeling anywhere close to completely spent yet. So here I remain, well past my ‘sell-by’ date, with a reasonable expectation I’ll still be breathing in and out when I wake up in the morning.
So that’s a piece of it. All of the above, and now I’m seventy god damn years old to boot? Day-em wouldja look at that!
I suspect the other reason this turning 70 deal has caught my attention also has to do with the fact that I’m working my way through this “final season” of my life.
Bear with me, I want to talk a little about what processing my somewhat impending demise has meant for me.
Start here. I am not a man of faith. I may well be, in some respects, “spiritual,” I’m probably not the best judge of that. But I don’t follow a religious path (I have no quarrel with those who do—matter of fact I regard many of them with deep admiration and respect). It’s just never been a comfortable fit for me, and I’ve tried several different belief systems on for size over the years. Thus, I don’t enjoy a sense of self that promises a continuity beyond death, let alone what that might look/feel like. So, no expectations.
Now, most of my life I’d have gladly told you that, if I get a vote, my preference would default toward being completely surprised by some unanticipated immediate interruption—an unfortunate encounter with a speeding truck, perhaps.
Thing is, in the event, I’ve found this extended final glide path to be an unimagined luxury. [Demonstrating yet again that I rarely seem to know what’s actually best for me.]
For one thing, this interregnum has afforded me an extended opportunity to review and contemplate the life I’ve had. And while I have had to navigate my share of difficult situations (many of them of my own making) any reasonable observer would have to say I have been exceptionally fortunate throughout my life.
I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to be associated with a remarkable number of very special individuals. Talented artists and musicians, passionate and generous leaders of many, many types, dear friends who have loved, sustained and taught me so very much.
I have lived my life almost exclusively in locations that are among the most beautiful on the planet, more often than not in communities populated with caring and responsible people.
I’ve had employment, across several professional tracks throughout my working life that has almost always provided dignified, ethical, and fulfilling work, usually with bosses and peers I could respect and whose company I enjoyed.
Speaking of “good company,” it seems life has also brought me a wonderful collection of true friends—folks I care about deeply and who seem to reciprocate the feeling. More people than I can begin to count, a significant number of them folks who have been a part of my life for decades.
Despite the odd moments of friction here and there, I enjoy loving, solid, and respectful relationships with three generations of family members.
All this barely scratches the surface, but you take my point, I hope. The opportunity to “review the record” this past couple of years makes me inexpressibly grateful for the life I’ve lived, making this unexpected opportunity to celebrate a 70th birthday a special moment, indeed.
At this point in the journey, I find myself surprisingly openhearted. I am deeply moved by the triumphs and disappointments, the joys and grieving of those around me. And that ability to be touched by what’s up with you is something to cherish as well.
I’m an alcoholic and drug addict who has now been living in recovery for more than half my life. When I first found my way into sobriety, I was damaged in many, many ways. Among them was my belief, based on self-observation, that I just was incapable of truly connecting with my fellow humans. I felt like the emotional equivalent of a driver who’s involved in a bad accident, totals the car, but walks away with just a few scratches—not truly impacted by what just occurred. I was convinced I had just been built without the wiring circuits that created the ability to truly care about others.
But in this “second act” of my life, the half spent in recovery, it turns out that’s not the case at all.
No, it turns out that there is nothing in my life more important to me than the connections I feel to all around me. The natural beauty of the world we live in, the opportunities each day brings to experience things—those new and revelatory as well as the familiar with the pleasure and satisfaction it brings. And especially the relationships with my fellow humans.
It turns out that I see my job at this point as planting, nurturing, fostering the Love anywhere and everywhere I can (and each day is filled for opportunities to do that).
It turns out that I’m not just capable of connecting with others, it’s what I do best, and the most important work in my life.
So, happy birthday to me. I’m 70 fer crissakes. Sure did not expect that.