I just had a birthday. By the time you read this column I will have been 60 years old for a few months, long enough to get used to the idea. But as I write this I am still a child at it, seeing things with brand new eyes.
Turning 60 certainly wasn’t something I set out to do, and no one who knew me when I was young and reckless would have predicted it. I lived most of my youth and at least part of my so-called “adult” life in a manner that seemed to assure it wouldn’t happen. Two prime directives guided most of my decisions—I can do anything, and I will live forever.
Conceptually, it never occurred to me that immortality might mean actually reaching the unthinkable age of 60. Like most young people, I had neither time nor inclination to think about it. I was much too busy exploring every dark hole and balancing on the edge of every accessible precipice. The word “foolishness” was not in my vocabulary, because there was no such thing in my critical judgment machinery.
The idea of turning 60 takes some getting used to for a young fellow my age. For most of my life I’ve felt deliciously young. Never any lack of goals in mind, never any shortage of dreams in reserve, never any loss of enthusiasm for adventure and excitement. But in the months before my birthday I found myself focusing on too many wrong things. Remembering disappointments, regretting failures, grieving losses, and assessing my life as husband, father and friend in the dark light of too many faults and failings. And for the first time, with so many friends recently gone, I was constantly aware of my potentially imminent mortality.
My daughter Shelly and her husband Greg came over for the landmark birthday. Shelly was obviously excited as she handed me a wrapped gift. I knew what it was immediately. Some things cannot be disguised under thin paper wrapping. Basketballs, for example. Skateboards. Helicopters. And photo albums.
“It’s a photo album,” I announced with a knowing grin, needing to prove that even at 60 I had not yet lost my senses of touch and feel. Shelly once collected some of our favorite digital photos, printed them, and put them into a new leather album as her anniversary gift to us. As the guy who already has everything he wants—except, perhaps, the helicopter—I already appreciated the gift. Knowing Shelly, the album would be full of thoughtfully chosen and artistically organized pictures.
By way of reply Shelly smiled and said, “You better sit down, Dad.”
On the sofa with Roxanne, Greg and Shelly gathered around, I unwrapped my gift. The album looked expensive and felt like it was stuffed full of pictures. I knew this would be a treat. Everyone was watching intently and—I found this odd—almost seemed to be holding their breath. I opened the album in my lap.
On the inside cover, printed in an elegant font on custom paper, was a long message from Roxanne, my beautiful wife for 40 years. She wrote about the day we met. She revealed her first thoughts about me, and her feelings as she came to know me and then to love me. She described the essence of our lives together, and what it has meant to her to trust me with her heart for her entire life. And she told about her plans and dreams for our long future together.
On the facing page were photographs from our youth, including shots of the two walks we have taken down the aisle as man and wife. I was deeply moved. This was much more than I expected. No wonder everyone was watching. What a beautiful way to introduce an album of family photographs. Leave it to Shelly to make up such a thoughtful gift. I turned the page.
On the following pages were more printed messages and pictures. From my granddaughter. My children. My nieces and nephews. All of it from their deepest hearts. In their own sweet words—they will always be children to me—they described what it meant having me in their lives while growing up. Speechless, I turned the page.
What followed were page after page of messages from the friends of my entire life. Expressions of affection. Reminders of enrichment. Recollections of adventures, great and small, that will live forever in shared memory. Photographs from other cameras, including pictures I have never seen, reflecting the experiences of my life and the friendships of my lifetime.
The gift on my 60th birthday was from everyone in my life. To create this treasure, Roxanne and Shelly secretly raided my contact list and other resources and spent a month or more communicating with everyone through emails and putting it together.
So here I am at the age of 60—as much to my surprise as anyone’s—with a refreshed perspective. Wiping the dust off the Bowflex, taking daily vitamins, all set to make the most of the second half of my life. Perhaps with more than my fair share of optimism, some might suggest. But with a little more wisdom, perhaps. An abiding thrill for high adventure. And an undiminished delight in utter foolishness.
It’s going to keep me young forever.
Until next time,
My Best from the Stern
Ted A. Thompson