By Anthony Deyal
One night, some of Mark Twain’s friends, remembering it was the writer’s birthday, decided to send him a birthday card. However, Twain was away on his travels and none of them knew where he was or how to contact him. So, they mailed a letter with the address, “Mark Twain, God Knows Where.” A few weeks later they received an acknowledgement reading simply, “He did.”
In my case, when the clock moves from midnight on Monday next week and hits the first millisecond of recorded time on Tuesday, August 10, I will leave the past of 75 to enter the unknown future of 76. One thing I am sure of is that God and my family will know exactly where I am even though there are times when I’m not totally sure myself. As Michael Cowley, the American writer said, “They tell you that you’ll lose your mind when you grow older. What they don’t tell us is that you won’t miss it very much.” The only thing I know that can prevent further ageing is taking a short nap, especially when you’re driving. However, that is not for me. I continue to believe that having a birthday is a lot better than not having one.
In looking at other people for whom being 76 was a milestone and not a millstone, the first who comes to mind is Nelson Mandela. While many people at this age are so locked into fear about ageing that some of them don’t think it makes sense to buy green bananas unless you’re making soup, Mandela became the first President of South Africa at 76. Pope John XXIII (23rd), known as “Il Papa Buono” or “The Good Pope”, was 76 when he was unexpectedly elected to the Catholic Church’s highest office. He continued for another five years. Oxfam, the global movement of people working together to end the injustice of poverty, was founded by 76-year-old Oxford classics scholar, Gilbert Murray in 1942.
While many of us at 76 cannot “found” something as helpful to humanity as Oxfam, we can find a few truths in our journey forward in an increasingly uncertain future. For example, I found out that I should never, under any circumstances, take a sleeping pill and a laxative the same night. I also learnt that when you’re young you feel your oats but when you’re old, all you feel are your corns. I was told by a friend that old age for a man is when he has been out with a girl all night and the only thing that comes is daylight
In my case, I don’t really need to know that Arthur Miller wrote one of his best plays, “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” at 76 or that Harriet Thompson, a cancer survivor, ran her first marathon at 76. What now interests me most are those people who, like me, are 76 years old this year and are wondering not just what life has in store for us but what we have in store for life. Having gone beyond three scores and ten and just hit another six into the stands, what value can we add?
Let’s start from the beginning. When I was young, I always felt like a male trapped in a female’s body. Then I was born. One thing that was obvious from the start is that I was born to be an optimist. My blood type is AB Positive and from birth, I have always been, and will forever remain, chock-full of AB positive vibrations. If anyone gives me a bag of horse-manure for my birthday, I am such an optimist that I will look in it for a horse. Many years ago, I was expecting a bike but my parents bought a fridge instead and told me it was my birthday gift. You should have seen my face light up when they opened the door.
What I’ve learnt, as George Burns said, is that you can’t help getting older but you don’t have to get old. By being both father and grandfather to my last two children, it is a lesson I’m still learning mainly because growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional. I think I grew up when I realised that I cannot change the past but can only learn from it.
Actually, the English writer and philosopher, G.K. Chesterton, known as the “prince of paradox” put my 76th birthday in the best possible context, “The first fact about the celebration of a birthday is that it is a way of affirming defiantly, and even flamboyantly, that it is a good thing to be alive.” There are, of course, times when you feel you’ve been around too long. You forget the boast about “When you’re over the hill you now start picking up speed” and face the fact that you’re not just over the hill but you can no longer see it in your rear-view mirror. You boast “Age is just a number” and then it hits you that it is a very big number indeed and getting bigger. The only consolation is that at my age, hair loss is no longer premature. Like Clark Gable, it’s gone with the wind.
Just like Richard J. Needham, the Canadian humour columnist who was one of my heroes. Among my favourite Needham comments are, “Young people can’t possibly be any more wicked than their elders. They don’t have the time, the money, or the experience” and “The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents, and the second half by our children.” The quip that actually started me thinking about what might lie ahead is this one which is like a pathway, highway or possible dirt trail for folks like me, “The seven ages of man: spills, drills, thrills, bills, ills, pills and wills.” I seem to have done them all already unless “wills’ in this context means “will-power” or being extremely “strong-willed.”
Later today, I’m going to complete a book with 76 articles, one for each of my years, from my 1,500 or so Caribbean columns which started in the Barbados Nation in April 1993 and then went on to the Trinidad Express, Jamaica Gleaner, Kaieteur News (Guyana) and other newspapers. It is my birthday gift to myself and my readers over the years. While I still believe that I have not been a success in the normally understood meaning of the word, I will go with Needham’s definition and smile with some satisfaction, “What is success in this world? I would say it consists of four simple things – to live a lot, to love a lot, to laugh a lot and from it all, to learn a lot.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen quoting Richard J. Needham, “Strong people make as many mistakes as weak people. The difference is that strong people admit their mistakes, laugh at them, learn from them. That is how they become strong.”