Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Birthday 61 Revisited

IMAGE: A signpost honoring US Highway 61, a north-south route in the Midwest that generally follows the Mississippi River, and is thus a perennial theme in the American blues tradition.

Yesterday I turned sixty-one years old. It was a day I share with actor Denzel Washington, professional wrestler Lanny Poffo, and magazine editor and morning news anchor Gayle King. Granted, it was not the banner year that was the previous birthday, and “Sal” was overseas on a family matter (more on that later). On the other hand, I received a record number of over one hundred birthday greetings on Facebook, more than twice as many as the previous year, including a record number of ex-girlfriends. I also got to see the new Star Wars movie (not too shabby, in spite of what they say), and I had the best steak dinner ever at my usual just-down-the-street Irish pub.

Aside from all that, it was just another day.

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They will probably come more quickly now, and an awareness of the inevitable is setting in. I remember things that I think only happened last year, but upon closer examination, happened two or three years ago. I meet former altar servers whom I supervised at my parish, who are now married and having children. And more often than not, when I walk into a room at the agency where I work, I am the oldest person there.

IMAGE: The Nine Ages of Man by Jörg Breu the Younger (circa 1510-47).

Most men at this point realize that there are things on the "bucket list" they made up at twenty-five, that they realize they are never going to get to do. I don't believe I suffer from that as much as others. I'll probably play guitar more often than I have in the last ten years, but the chances of being in a working band do get smaller. But never say never.

I am often told that I don't look as old as I am, maybe five or even ten years younger (especially by women, which is even better). True, I don't have wrinkles, and I still only have one chin. Maybe that's the ticket. Or maybe it's because the men in my lineage tend to live a long time, well into their eighties, even after a life of smoking like a chimney and drinking like a fish (not that I'm about to mention any names). My brother has the same good fortune, further evidence of it running in the family. Even my father spent half his life stricken with multiple sclerosis, and he lived to be eighty-six-and-a-half.

VIDEO: Pete Singer performs "Get Up And Go," a tribute to growing older, in a 1967 broadcast on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (CBS).

But others are not so fortunate. I tend to look more at the obituaries than before, to see if there's anyone I know, or just how close in age I am to those who have passed on. Just a couple of months ago I read of a woman who died, who had worked at my agency for years. She hadn't been retired for one year when she was found to have cancer, and died soon after. She was only a couple of years older than myself. Could that just as easily happen to me, the odds notwithstanding? Now, if I were diagnosed with, say, pancreatic cancer, I'd be in a lot of pain, but I know I'd have a timetable, about six to eight months.

But I'm not waiting for that. For the following year of Our Lord 2016, I will begin the process of putting my affairs in order; the composition of a Last Will and Testament, detailed instructions on my funeral and burial arrangements, and what to do with my library of books, divided by subject matter, and where they will go. The hard part is with my musical instrument collection, which includes a banjo that's one hundred years old and belonged to my great-uncle, Otto. Who in what little there is of my line wants an old banjo?

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IMAGE: A daughter pays final respects to her mother.

Sal learned the news earlier this month. Her mother passed away during the early morning hours, falling asleep and leaving this world peacefully at the age of ninety-one. She and her brothers were soon on a plane to the Philippines. “Nanay” (pronounced NAH-nye, roughly translated as "Mommy" or "Mama") grew up in the province of Bataan (which is not pronounced buh-TAN, but bah-tah-AHN) located west of Manila along the Manila Bay. During the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, she spent much of the time in hiding, to avoid being captured by the Japanese, who used the native girls as "comfort women." After the war, she married a man from Pampanga (a province north of Manila), and they made their home in Navotas City (within Metro Manila, northwest of the capital city itself), raising five daughters, one of them adopted, and four sons. Together the couple operated a grocery store in neighboring Malabon City. After her husband had passed, she lived alone in a house in Malabon, not far from Sal and her own family, accompanied by a live-in caregiver.

IMAGE: A butterfly, said in Chinese and Pinoy folklore to represent the spirit of the deceased, pays a visit while her granddaughter is baking cookies.

The Funeral Mass was held on the evening of the vigil itself, and burial was the next morning. Nanay was laid to rest as a Bride going forth to meet her Bridegroom, in the gown from her golden wedding anniversary, a traditional Filipino formal dress known as a “terno” (from the Spanish for "matching"), characterized by pointed "butterfly sleeves" at the shoulders. Indeed, butterflies appear to be a characteristic in Filipino folklore. As the family was sitting down to the traditional dinner for the ninth day after their mother's passing, they were visited in the house by a swarm of butterflies. The Chinese say -- Sal is one-fourth Chinese, and most Filipinos are at least partially so -- that the winged creatures represent the deceased loved ones who return to comfort those left behind, and to celebrate the welcome of their new sojourner.

IMAGE: Sal greets a band of carolers in front of her house on the eve of Christmas.

There have been the usual matters of the disposition of the mother's affairs. We talk about every other day by videophone, usually briefly. She is never left alone long enough when she's home, always inundated with a steady stream of visitors, family members taking her one place or another. One thing is for sure, and the family has been warned; next time she goes, I'm going with her. Maybe it's just me, but I think three Christmases away in a row, whatever the reason, is about enough. They only have two seasons, a wet one and a dry one. At least I'll get to pack light.

With any luck, I'll get to see Christmas on the other side of the planet. Maybe I'll get to see a parade of parols, as well as a unique brand of carolers, up close and personal.

And so it goes.

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