A few days after Christmas, I will mark the 60th anniversary of my birth. I love birthdays, always have, my own as well as others. Although the acknowledgments and celebrations are gratifying, my love of birthdays stems from the hope and curiosity generated by the desire to see what lays ahead, grasping the outstretched hand beckoning me forward, the anticipation of joy and adventure to come. However, this year my enthusiasm is tempered. The reality of turning 60 fills me with a sense of urgency, and a smidgen of fear.
My mother died of a massage stroke at age 60, having experiencing a cerebral hemorrhage nine months earlier, which resulted in the diagnosis of an inoperable brain aneurysm. Following our mother’s death, my five siblings and I found solace in our close bond, the same bond that cradled us through the sudden death of our father from a heart attack at age 61, 20 months earlier. Our collective sorrow had only begun to recede when our mother received her diagnosis.
I was 29 when my father died and 30 when my mother died. I have spent half of my life without them. As I write of their deaths, tears, long tamped down, force their way through my emotional blockade and trail down my face. No amount of time erases the pain, but time, filled with the comings and goings of each passing year, eases the pain. No matter how long we have our parents, it’s never long enough.
In June 2000, my sister Mary, 42, 15 months my senior, my heart twin/soul mate, died of cancer. In July 2010, my sister, Judy, 58, six years my senior, died of cancer, and in December 2010, my younger sister, Angie, 45, six years my junior, died of cancer two weeks after being diagnosed. My strong, loving, beautiful, compassionate sisters left me … my role as the “strong one” in the family strained almost to the point of collapse from the depth of such unfathomable loss.
If I live to be 62, which I fully intend to do (I’m aiming for 95), I will be the longest-lived member of my immediate family. Having gone from the middle of six to the eldest of three, with two younger brothers. I was always a follower; quite happily, being the eldest doesn’t really suit me.
Turning 60 finds me without a family role model. How do I do life from here? How do I find my way with no compass, no true north … no one creating even the suggestion of a path to follow? Furthermore, the thought of maybe only having 30-some years left fills me with an urgency to live more fully, as well as a tinge of anxiety that I, too, may leave my loved ones prematurely.
Sensing my own mortality, I embarked on a reunion tour; a mission, prompted by deep desire, a genuine need to reconnect, to expand my heart, and to let the people I care about know it. I have always made a point of telling my family, as well as many close friends, how much I loved them, as well as the things I loved about them. It was time to enlarge my circle of love and appreciation.
Traveling to Chicago in early June, I reconnected with four, dear college friends, having not seen most of them for 34 years. Later in the month I traveled to Colorado, reconnecting with a beloved friend, and two of our former co-workers, whom I hadn’t seen for over 10 years. While in Colorado I visited my nephew, the only child of my youngest sister, along with his girlfriend, who gave birth to my great-nephew a few weeks later. The first child of our family’s next generation
July brought a visit with a beloved cousin, a daughter of my mother’s youngest sister, and her husband, who carved out a few days with me while visiting their daughter and soon to be son-in-law in another part of the state.
September found me traveling to southwestern Illinois. I visited with three beloved friends, before attending a fall festival in my hometown and reconnecting with numerous high school friends for a collective 60th birthday gathering. Many I hadn’t seen since we graduated 42 years earlier.
While in my hometown, I visited with a 94 year-old cousin, one of the last relatives of my father’s generation, and saw a few other cousins as well. I also had serendipitous meetings with former neighbors and old friends, people who knew my parents and sisters.
My 2018 reunion tour was a huge success, and I will continue my mission to reconnect with those who have shaped my life. Throughout my visits, connections were reaffirmed, reestablished and strengthened. We shared joy in our successes and expressed compassion in our losses; inevitable at our age. We listened, admired, and respected the lives we created since our last meetings. Laughter, beautiful, heartfelt laughter was the golden thread that bound all of our gatherings. All fear of aging was dispelled.
My soul, nourished and realigned by the deep, abiding connections made during my visits, exposed the path I will take for the rest of my days. A familiar path, laid down before me in childhood by my loving family. As with many life lessons, what we seek is found within us. I was too distracted by fear to continue living what I have always known: love, genuine connection, and laughter is the path that will forever propel me forward-at 60, and hopefully much beyond.
My parents, sisters, all who went before, never truly left me; I incorporated their love into my being, making a point to share it with everyone I meet.