By Larry Bogatz
I was born on Feb. 11, 1938. I don’t typically see my birthday as a day for which I am to be congratulated, since I did not have much to do with the original event. Others played much more significant roles, especially my mother, father and the doctor who delivered me.
However, there are reasons to celebrate. A quick review of my desk calendar shows 28 recognized days: eleven religious, eight patriotic and nine others. Of course, this does not include personal events such as birthdays and anniversaries. Some folks, like my in-laws, typically held multiple parties for any event that could be used as a reason for getting together; others, like my nephew and his wife (born on the same day in the same hospital), are more like me, celebrating in a low-key way by offering smiles or a good meal. Things that just sort of happened, like being born, fall into the category of “that’s nice, what’s new?” In my experience, lots of perfunctory wishes, not many feelings.
That changed for me this year. As for most of us, the pandemic brought gatherings with close friends to a halt. So, I figured this year’s birthday would be even more ho-hum. Boy, was I wrong! Opening my front door early that morning, I found a lovely gift card left by a couple I know. Soon after that, and for much of the morning, there was a parade of smiling faces (behind masks, of course) bringing me food, balloons, songs, dances, flowers, cards, and most of all, wishes that they really meant. Wishes they had gone out of their way to deliver personally, despite taking some added risk.
Although visiting indoors and hugging one another are still a bit restricted, all of us have shared the pain of disruption and not knowing who will be affected next or how. Without realizing it at first, I have come to rely on my close friends and the shared joys, pain and love that give depth to our relationships. Perhaps most surprising for me, I trust in their availability when I’m willing to risk being vulnerable and reveal my struggles. Overcoming the initial fear of being open and seeking emotional intimacy isn’t easy, especially for a man of my generation. However, I have found that the reward for overcoming my resistance is greater than I could have imagined. Staying locked inside my own little inner world lessened my connection with so many people in my outer world. And I know I am not alone in this. Everyone wants and needs support, understanding, love, and yes, help. My experience is that I always get more than I give.
The fact that I’m alive and relatively healthy at this age shouldn’t give the impression that it’s been an easy journey. No one goes through life without bearing the scars of struggles against opposing forces, systemic conditions, overt enemies, warranted and unwarranted fears and unspoken thoughts that work against what we want or need. At birth, we struggle to release our frail bodies into an environment not so warm and safe. Soon we must get food, walk and learn to talk, think and understand life’s lessons. We learn friendship and disappointment. We leave home. Every stage involves learning new ways to be and giving up old ways. We experience the joys of success and the disappointment of failures. Depending on our values, experiences, education, spiritual orientation, environment and mentors, we tend to go in predictable directions, and often require some form of baptism to test our abilities and determination. In short, every life stage involves struggle to give it meaning. The combination of age and the pandemic has brought this awareness into sharper focus for me.
Eventually, our abilities begin to decline. We once found meaning in serving our children. Now we see them, to various degrees, serving us. We once found meaning in careers which are now memories. We once worked 60-hour weeks. Now we take daytime naps. Medical appointments have replaced business meetings. But now the struggle is to give our lives meaning, which we attempt to create by serving our community and by trying to bring resources to people less privileged than we are. We create it in working for social justice. And perhaps most of all, we create it in caring for one another. My friends’ birthday visits brought joy, I know, not only to my heart, but also to theirs.