What do birthdays mean to you?

by Dori Gillam

When my daughter was at her six-year-old birthday party at the roller skating rink, an older woman bent down and asked her in a sing-song voice, “And how does it feel to be another year older today?”

My daughter thought for a second, then said, “Well, don’t you know? You’re another year older today, too.” The woman didn’t look like she appreciated the astute realization that on any given day, we’re all one year older than last year. Some people like to forget about birthdays until the day of, or forget about them altogether.

The fact that we only celebrate discrete anniversary days is a simplistic perspective on aging, and on the concept of time. As we age, many people believe that the birthday anniversaries ending in “5” or “0” are more important than the others, deserving bigger parties, more decorations, or even a trip. If an older person doesn’t live to the next “big one” we lament, as if it was a failure. Betty White died a couple of weeks before her 100th birthday and the celebratory magazine covers were already printed and distributed, “Betty White Turns 100!” People wondered if Betty planned it as a last laugh, and many thought it a huge disappointment. Isn’t being 99-years-old enough of a milestone?

My birthday is in January and get togethers have often been cancelled due to snow. For my 60th birthday, I had planned my own party – a gourmet cooking class/dinner with friends. It snowed that day beginning at noon and by 4:00 pm, it was deep enough that people started cancelling. After all, Seattle with 4-6 inches of snow means some of us might not be able to get home. We rescheduled for two weeks later. Some of my friends wondered if I was disappointed, but it doesn’t matter if I have a party at all, let alone on my actual birthdate. Not because I’m ashamed of aging or wish to forget it, but because I like to think each day is its own little birthday.

For my 70th birthday just last month, some friends in Palm Springs, CA had invited me and three others to join them for a four-day weekend. The idea was cooked up in October, when we were all vaxed and boosted, Delta was on the run, and Omicron hadn’t even been identified. A masked trip on a plane seemed safe.

Three weeks before the trip, one immuno-compromised friend dropped out, concerned about the rising Omicron spread. Three days before the trip, the other two dropped out as relatives tested positive after holiday parties they’d attended. I was still planning to go, but the day before the trip, one of my hosts tested positive! The trip was off, but my friends arranged a Zoom birthday party with three of us in my backyard-covered-pergola with space heaters. The others were in their separate houses online. We got a hand-held-laptop tour of the Palm Springs house where we all would have been, people showed their pets lying on the floor next to them, and my grandson made an appearance on screen with my daughter. It was terrific to see them all and to laugh with the ones in my pergola. We cobbled together a way to celebrate.

I tell people why I wasn’t disappointed that my 70th birthday trip was cancelled:

After all, we’re in a pandemic. We’re lucky not to be on a ventilator.
After all, retro-fitted birthday parties make better stories!
After all, I’m not six. We can celebrate being a year older any day of the week, and a day older every day we wake up.

As my dad used to say, “Being one day older only matters if you’re a banana.”