A good friend turned fifty this weekend. If he was melancholy about hitting the half-century mark, he didn’t show it. All he wanted was some drinks with a few close friends and his wife, which is exactly what he got.
On my twenty-fifth birthday, one of my cards said, “Happy Birthday. You are now old.” I knew it was a joke, and that I wasn’t really old. But whenever in the company of late-teen or college age kids, I would shoulder my way to the drink table, certain I was leaving a wake of whispers and sneers.
Then came thirty, the cultural death knell of youth. By age twenty-nine, I’d given up on writing; I was earning more money than I ever imagined I would, but the job was draining the life out of me. And I had a recurring dream that my teeth were falling out. But my first thought the next morning was,“Really? That was it?” The pressure was off; the dread was over.
Age forty is when the jokes really begin around the birthday cake. But I’d had my pre-emptive midlife crisis after the first dot.com crash, when I decided to try my hand at writing one last time (I hadn’t put pen to paper in years). When my fortieth came around, I’d moved to San Francisco (something I’d wanted to do for years), and my first novel had been released to, if nothing else, critical success. I was officially middle-aged, but I had nothing to look back on and second-guess.
But something else happens at forty. Those increments of time—minutes, hours, days, years—begin to lose their magnitude. At age ten, a year is a whole tenth of your life (a goodly chunk of which you can’t remember) and everything takes forever. The school year, long drives, waiting for Christmas, the last five minutes of the school day, everything. By age fifteen, a year is a little shy of 7% of your life; skip ahead to forty, and a year isn’t so long at all, anymore. Your friends and colleagues have been getting married, buying houses, having children. Maybe you’re one of them, maybe you’re not, but by this point in your life, the day fires you out of a cannon as soon as you wake up.
Then you blink, and you’re half a century.
I’m not there yet, but I’m close enough that I try not to blink too much. I’ve been to a lot of fiftieth birthdays in the last few years, and I’d sleep with my eyes open, if I could. Somewhere between thirty-five and fifty, the wedding invitations, house warming parties and birth announcements cede to a slow wave of divorces (sometimes, but not always) and funerals (inevitable). Maybe they start with distant friends and acquaintances, but they creep closer and closer, become more and more frequent, while the time goes faster and faster. It’s not like Death is coming for you, but more like you and Death keep bumping into each other at the same places. You don’t really talk much, even though you know a lot of the same people.
My buddy, the one who just turned fifty, lost his mother not long ago, right about the same time I lost my grandmother (the last of my grandparents). My friends whose lives have been interrupted by the death of a parent are no longer the exception but the rule.
If you’re at a close friend’s fiftieth birthday, chances are you’re not far behind. And you’re all laughing about each others’ grey hair, receding hair, expanding waist lines and all the creaks and aches you didn’t feel at twenty. You joke about how you all take just a little longer to do everything, how you’re okay with needing glasses—you have been for a long time—but you’re in active denial about the bifocals. You regard them as a cruel joke; the forty-plus equivalent of braces with headgear. If people over forty designed video games, players wouldn’t find health packs or first aid kits to restore their characters; they’d be foraging for ice packs, heating pads, knee braces or maybe having to take real-time, twenty-minute naps.
Yeah, the jokes are easy to make. But if you’re lucky (like me), your friends who are touching fifty have led rich lives that make the aches, creaks, bifocals and hearing aids pale in significance.
So, the six of us gave up on finding a quiet place on a Friday night, so we headed back to one of our apartments. The wine and conversation flowed; we jockeyed for control of the music and enjoyed the each others’ company. It was just five of us at this point, but Death sent his regards from afar. Some of our company had lost a close friend, someone whom I’d never met but whose passing was recent enough to warrant acknowledgement that night.
On Saturday afternoon, I went to a memorial for, Gina, another friend who died last August.
First, some broad brush strokes: my first year out of college was spent living in a house where the other tenants had formed a band (DIN) and subsequently built a recording studio in the basement. That house was the nucleus for their larger social circle of friends (mostly co-workers from the now-defunct Tower Records where they’d met) and there I spent my own little summer of love, way back in the 80’s, amongst like-minded folks—musicians, writers, painters and slackers of various stripes—with lofty ambitions, few responsibilities and our whole lives ahead. Gina was, in many respects, a sort of royalty among us.
We all kept kept in touch to varying degrees as we moved on with our lives. David still has an annual Winter Solstice party and, over the years, there were more pregnant attendees, and soon more children.
Some two decades later, Gina parted ways with the living after a long and painful bout with cancer. When I last saw her (February, I think it was), she looked the same as I remembered, except for the wig. She was honestly shining, that night. When I said good night, I wasn’t sure if it would be the last time. It was.
Too many of us from the old days were unable to make the (formal? official? I don’t know…) service after Gina died, so we held a gathering in San Francisco, where we could all pay tribute to her. Even the band got back together for their first show in twenty-three years.
And all of us had blinked.
Watching someone age up close, day after day, taking everything life throws at them while they watch you do the same, you only see the changes when you look at old pictures. All together at once in a room for the first time in decades, it’s like seeing versions of your friends who’ve been hit by lightning. And catching up is hard because people aren’t graduating and getting jobs as much, they’ve been muscling through divorces and burying loved ones. “How have you been?” is a dangerously loaded question. Some of us had spouses and children; some of us had gotten clean after long struggles; all of us were having a tough time recalling details from our shared exploits of twenty-three years ago.
In the midst of it all, Gina’s boyfriend of many years, August, gave us a dose of the art they made together. A superbly talented painter, August also showcased the marionettes, puppets and sets that he and Gina created and performed with over their years with each other; he played a few songs and overall presented himself with a light that I didn’t think was possible under emotional circumstances I can’t begin to imagine. And when DIN took the stage after twenty-three years (and a week of frenzied rehearsals), fired through their old set list and finished with a Stooges cover, August was the first person out there dancing, pulling everyone he could grab to get up and join him.
I saw my nephew for the first time in probably eight years. He’s taller than me, now. I buried an old hatchet. The ground was frozen, I’ll admit, and I’m out of practice having a free hand, but I did my best. And I stayed sober. The birthday from the night before had done a number on me. I drink so seldom now that my liver has returned to its normal composition of kittens and glitter. Hangovers rob me of writing time and like I said, the time flies faster every year.
And today, I said goodbye to some friends moving to the East Coast. I don’t see them too often, especially since they moved out of the city for the East Bay. I’d last seen their first daughter when she was an infant, and now she’s half my own height. They had their second baby a few months ago, and I met her for the first time, her head lolling about under its own weight, but her eyes taking in everything (in the last three weeks, I’ve heard from two other close friends, both expecting children in the Spring).
I was still shell-shocked from my Saturday, so I didn’t say much and didn’t stay long. But when I left, Matt walked me to the door. I said I hoped to see them out on the East Coast sooner than later, before his girls were grown up. In response, he told me what it was like to watch their personalities crystallize, particularly his oldest daughter, as she reflected bits of him and his wife while coming into her own. He finished with this:
“She is all of the best parts of me. Without her, I would cease to exist.” He said this with a gloss in his eyes, the kind you get when the feeling you have is too big for the body feeling it, so it pushes against you from the inside and twists up your words and makes everything blurry for a minute or two.
With any luck, she’ll turn 50 with a table full of close friends who can laugh about how old they’re getting, but how it’s really not so bad, especially when you’re leading the life you wanted. And then some day, hopefully a day very far from now, she’ll be remembered fondly enough for her friends— who haven’t seen her or each other in decades—to travel far and wide and pay tribute to her, drink to each other, bury their hatchets, add to their sober years, hug her surviving loved ones and introduce their children to the people who knew and loved her before those children were born.
Try not to blink, lad. For as long as you can.
Causes Craig Clevenger Supports
San Francisco AIDS Foundation Needle Exchange World Parrot Trust