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On my 77th Birthday

I am not a big celebrator of birthdays, at least not my own. I can still recall my 10th birthday when all my friends were there, the gifts had been opened, cake eaten, and one of my friends (yes, you, Gary Quinn) decided it was time for the birthday spanking, a tradition I don't find happening as much anymore. One whap for each year. But I refused to let them do it and ran into my parent's bedroom, locked the door and would not come out until they all got bored and went home. I can remember my mother being slightly embarrassed but I was not about to allow them to humiliate me like that.

For my 16th year my grandmother fixed a huge birthday meal of ham, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, corn, and brown sugar baked beans. Yum! Then, for dessert there was chocolate pudding, apple pie, birthday cake and cookies and, when I couldn't possibly have eaten any more, my grandmother smiled and said, "and now, Keith, I have a special surprise just for you" and went to her freezer. There she pulled out a banana split so big and heavy she nearly dropped it. Three scoops of ice cream - vanilla, chocolate and strawberry (my favorite) - chopped nuts, a sliced banana with chocolate sauce, cherries, strawberries and then she proudly took a can of Reddi-Wip and layered it all over the top. I thought I was going to die, not from surprise but from the fact that I was going to explode. Or implode. It didn't matter which at that point. My grandmother, her face beaming with joy and happiness and having been born with the Norwegian gene that causes grandmothers to feel deep, generational hurt if a meal is not fully consumed, well, I had to eat it. All of it. Slowly. And then I proceeded to crawl into the living room where I lay very still, flat on my back, and held my own private prayer meeting asking God to help me keep it all down!

This birthday, however, my 77th, I will be celebrating and for all the best of reasons. I am here, I am alive and I have the very strong feeling that I will be around for a long, long time. I have, afterall, a lot to do and a lot to accomplish. You see, it was exactly one year ago, on my 76th birthday, that I was given the medical prognosis of advanced prostate cancer and went through about a day and a half of feeling sorry for myself. Then I woke up one morning, decided this was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me and in just a little under two months retired, sold my house and moved to Northern California to be near my family. With their love and support I then made the decision to follow the traditional medical path and underwent 40 days of radiation treatment, which sounds ominous, but I barely felt a side effect. And just two weeks ago, my doctor declared me cancer free, a wonderful birthday present, if I do say so myself.

As we get older, there is a certain amount of unspoken shame that comes attached to it. As if age is an admission of defeat. 'You're old' you can feel people thinking while I'm still looking at that 20 year old girl and thinking 'Wow!' You don't create it but it is quietly imposed on you. Society seems to have an unwritten assumption that once you reach a certain age you should just politely fade into the background and start watching daytime television. I never thought it would be true, but it is. People start acting in a deferential way toward you and often, when I'm in a store or supermarket, there are those who almost walk through me as if I am not there. Or they choose not to see me. It's interesting.

But never in my life have I felt so alive and so unencumbered by judgement, especially my own. I don't apologize for what I am any longer. Have I achieved all that I wanted? No, but now I see that neither did I want all that I tried to achieve. I wanted, for example, to become a professional singer and to achieve that one transformative sound that would be so pure, so beautiful that the mere hearing of it would heal and inspire. I am still pursuing that hope and vocalize most every day. But what was once my dream of singing beautifully has now become the reality of singing through my poetry and lifting myself (and hopefully others) into that place I wanted to go with my voice. And it was only just a few nights ago that my sister, Jeanne, reminded me I always wanted to be a writer. She was right and I had forgotten.

So, I will celebrate this birthday, but it won't be some grand party. In fact, I think the plan is for Taco Tuesday, on a Wednesday, with my family. There won't be an over the top celebration with everyone getting crazy drunk. But there will be wine. And if my actual birthday fell on a Friday or Saturday instead of a Wednesday, there would most likely be edibles. Being 77 years old has no particular milestone attached to it like turning 21, 40 or even 75 which, thanks to Covid, we celebrated via Zoom. But there will be an inner gift I give myself and it is this: That I have and will continue to live my hero's journey. That I have and will continue to bring heaven to this earth. And love.

So here's my birthday gift to both me and you. A poem that I hope you hear singing.

"There is a greater life,

beyond all guilt and shame

and if you're living something else,

you've just yourself to blame.

For we're not here to suffer,

but live our light and love,

until we come to realize

we each are heav'n above."



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