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Madeline Sharples: Birthday Celebrations as We Age

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By Madeline Sharples

One of my dear friends recently said, "I don't even want to go anywhere to celebrate ... there is not a whole lot to celebrate about getting old." This reminded me of a quote I've been repeating for a lot of years: "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?" attributed to Satchel Paige. I turned 71 at my last birthday. But I feel as vital as I did in my 50s and 60s.

Why then, as some of us get older, do we want to stop celebrating our birthdays? Is it because we don't want to recognize the fact that we're actually getting older, we don't feel that we're worth the celebration now that we're old, or we feel remorse about the way we've lived our lives? It's probably a bit of all three.

The first birthday I absolutely didn't want to celebrate was my 60th. But that wasn't because of my age. It was the first birthday after the death of my oldest son, Paul. I just couldn't imagine a party or any kind of celebration without him. However, I didn't let this milestone birthday go unnoticed. My husband, Bob, and I booked a massage workshop at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., and we spent my birthday weekend there.

When I turned, 65 Bob gave me a party -- he insisted on it -- and in the end I was so honored to have so many family members and friends attend. The people in the room -- some I've known and kept in touch with since high school -- had all stayed by my side during the worst tragedy of my life and very much helped me get to that important 65th birthday milestone.

My last two birthdays were my favorites -- both small, casual family events. Last year we were at my nephew and niece's home in Virginia with their little ones, Anna and Ian, for a family dinner in their home. The children each made me a birthday necklace and card and picked out balloons and decorations perfectly suited to their little girl and boy tastes. When one of the decorations fell off the wall, Ian said he had to go fix the birthday. When the celebration was over -- complete with my favorite chocolate flourless cake -- he asked when it was going to be his birthday. He obviously felt the delight of that party and wanted some of that for himself.

This year I celebrated at my sister and brother-in-law's home in Oregon. My sister-in-law, from Denver, was there as well as my nephew and his girlfriend, who brought over delicious vegan birthday cupcakes.

It is so nice to be with family, especially the little ones, on these occasions. If we don't celebrate we give them the wrong message: That growing older is a horrible thing that we would rather forget.

I loved planning my mother's birthday celebrations, starting at her 70th -- her first birthday after my dad died. At that point in her life she didn't care about anything, let alone having a birthday party, but she learned to love the present opening and all the photos she got as a result. The older she got, the bigger the party I threw for her. I think those birthday parties kept her going. Unfortunately, she didn't reach her 95th milestone -- she lived just past 94.

With each birthday I'm reminded that second acts can come at any age. It's never too late to do something more with your life. My life continues to transform. Just in the last year I became a full-time writer and journalist after working as a technical writer and editor and proposal manager most of my professional life.

I wasn't able to convince another friend how important our birthdays are to our own well-being and to our friends and families. She totally wants to ignore the fact that she turned 65 this year. She can't face becoming that age. I ask myself why 65 is such a dreaded milestone? This is a woman who has so much going for her -- three grandbabies, a newly redesigned and remodeled home that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, a busy volunteering life, and she's in terrific shape. That she is 65 has really nothing to do with her life at all. Her age doesn't get in her way of living a very full life, except in the way she feels about it.

Well, we are going to celebrate with her anyway. Four of her closest friends have made plans to take her to dinner. And she's just going to have to get over it. I wonder how old she would be if she didn't know her chronological age?

Madeline Sharples' memoir "Leaving the Hall Light On" was published in May 2011. She writes a monthly column for Naturally Savvy as its "over 60 expert." To learn more about Madeline and to read her blog, visit her on Red Room.

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