You Say It’s Your Birthday?
It’s my birthday too, yeah.
Those words above are from a song, Birthday, by Paul McCartney and John Lennon. That song is playing in my mind now because today is my birthday. I’m 55 years old today and that makes it official. I’m a senior citizen. I’m entitled to all sorts of senior discounts, and I can’t wait to see what’s out there.
Some of my friends tell me that I don’t act very old. Well, I don’t believe in growing old. Growing old is what people do when they begin to believe that life has defeated them. They seem to think that the goal of life is to win. Sorry, the goal of life is to live. Our genes gave us everything we need to live. It’s up to us to figure out the rest. Especially that part about being happy.
As I look around me, I see so much more to life than, “life’s a bitch, and then you die.” If there is nothing certain in life beyond death and taxes, then you might think you need a drink or a joint to take the edge off. That’s a very narrow view of life.
With 7.7 billion people on the planet, It’s somebody’s birthday every day. There are no exceptions. Millions of people were born yesterday and today. Millions of people share my birthday with me. They just don’t know it yet. In a past job, I just happened to be working in the HR department and I saw by chance that one of my coworkers had the exact same birthday as I did. She was born on the same day in the same year as I was. And I saw just how different we are.
I have this really bad joke that I like to tell people on their birthdays. “You know, studies show that birthdays are good for your health. The alternative is really grim.” And it’s true. You can’t stay alive without a birthday. Well, you could. You could just ignore your birthdays and let them pass quietly. I tried to do that for many years. But my mom would always be there, singing happy birthday into my answering machine, and now, my voicemail. Happily, my wife celebrates my birthday, too. If someone says “happy birthday” to you, they are saying that they love you.
I’ve seen some very old people. The oldest person I ever met was 103. How do you get there? Life is hard enough to just live. Life requires effort. Consciousness requires effort. We eat. We poop. We cry. We laugh. We crawl, we walk, we run, and some of us turn those wheels in the wheelchair.
With each passing year, as our cells are replaced by division and replication, replication errors are introduced into our genes. Our genes, the instructions for our lives in every single cell of our bodies, are great stuff. They are the accumulated wisdom of more than a billion years of life. But they’re not perfect. And when our cells make a copy of that DNA, errors are introduced.
Some of those errors in DNA are just mechanical errors with a flipped nucleotide here and there. Some errors are from toxins in the environment that we eat, drink, touch or breathe. Others are from ionizing radiation that nails a nucleotide and the enzymes that do the work of transcription to make proteins don’t notice the error. The enzymes in the cell that do the work of copying the DNA don’t notice the error, either. With each copy, errors are copied or introduced. And every cell in our body is replaced every seven years.
So not only does it take effort to stay alive, with each cell we replace, it gets harder to live as the number of DNA errors increases over time, in each of our cells. This is where the will to live comes in. This is where the spirit comes in.
Every human being has this sort of spirit or will to live in them. Most of the time the will to live works great. The instinct of self-preservation keeps us from getting hit by a garbage truck. The will to live keeps us from ending our own lives. The spirit carries us through injury, severe illness and loss. The spirit is what gives us a sense of humor that we need when we near the end.
I used to work in a retirement home where the average age of the residents was 82. I saw 3 stages of life here. There were people who still lived in their own apartments, quite independently. Then there were the people who required supervision but were still ambulatory. And then there was 24/7 care, a sort of hospice until the very end. I got to know people in the first two. The people in 24/7 care didn’t have the time or energy for conversation.
I remember this one woman, Linda, that I used to see wandering around. I’d talk to her and tell her my stories. And I’d say, “Remember what I said yesterday?” “What did you say yesterday?”, she’d ask. I said that “Today is Wednesday, I told you another story yesterday, on Tuesday.” And then she’d tell me that she didn’t know what day it was. In her life, the day of the week didn’t matter anymore.
In that retirement home, I used to get voicemail on my phone every day that went something like this, “At 3:33 this morning, John Doe expired today.” Some days there would be more than one message like that. They were hard to hear, even if I didn’t know them, and often I’d delete them as soon as I heard the tone of the voice on the message.
Working in that retirement home gave me first-hand experience of seeing how people deal with aging. Those people living in that retirement home were rich. They could afford $300k just to buy in and stay there. They had access to the best health care available and they had full-time staff around just to cook and clean for them.
I also noticed their attitudes. The people who were walking every day also had a sense of humor. Really, when you’re body is aging you begin to notice that what used to be there isn’t there anymore, or it’s not working the way you remembered from before. And when you’re 82, even if you have money and everything is taken care of, you need a sense of humor.
There were a few residents I’d see often, and when I saw them, walking around, they had something funny to say. They’d make me laugh, or I’d say something funny for them. That sense of humor is what keeps them walking, it keeps them moving. And I have to say that as a senior citizen today, I still have a sense of humor.
So I’m just going to enjoy my birthday today. I’ll still go to work. I’ll still have a birthday. We already had some cake last night because my kids wanted the cake. And I already made a wish and blew out a candle. We’ll have some more cake tonight. And I’ll just let that be enough when I go to sleep tonight.
I won’t worry about having a party or receiving any gifts. I’ve already received so many gifts just from living, that I don’t worry about receiving gifts anymore. I have enough gifts that the only other gift that really matters is this day. My birthday.