November 19, 2009

Cherish every birthday…

Posted in Between Us column, Health, Relationships, Spirituality at 7:29 pm by dinaheng

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking on the phone with my friend Jean, who was due to turn 83 shortly. When I asked her what she would be doing on her birthday, she said, “Nothing.”

One son was out of the country, visiting his son, and her other son lived in another state.  Knowing Jean, she raised both boys to make “sensible” decisions, and it would not occur to her to ask anyone to even take note of her birthday.

I, being not so sensible, decided to fly out to celebrate the day with her. In my opinion, no one who’s lived into their 80s should be alone on their birthday.

I was able to find a good air fare, leaving Los Angeles on Friday the 13th, arriving into Washington, D.C. before midnight, in time to take Jean to lunch before getting on a flight back to L.A. that would get me back home before midnight on Saturday.

The weather was drizzly and cool, but our visit was joyous. Saturday morning, we spent a couple of hours, just sitting and talking, catching up on our lives. I brought her a book and chocolates for her birthday gift, and she surprised me with a gift of her own.

Handing me a small box, she said, “I’m starting to give things away because at 83, you never know how long you’ll be here. I’ve always thought of you like the daughter I never had, and I wanted you to have something to remember me by.”

I was so touched by her words, and smiled when I saw what was in the box. There were three pieces of jewelry — an amethyst ring, a silver owl brooch with amethyst eyes, and a cameo ring with three dancing women on it.

“Those are the Three Graces,” Jean said, pointing to the three daughters on Zeus, known in Greek mythology as the goddesses of joy, charm and beauty. “They would sing and dance, and their purpose in life was to make people happy.  I hope they will always keep you happy.”

Happiness seems like such a fleeting thing, at times. We spend so much of our days worrying about things that are or have not happened. Happiness has a chance to seep into our consciousness only when we stop thinking about the problems we’re wrestling with.

Yet if we turned that around, and concentrated on the blessings that grace our lives every day, the problems we faced would not seem so insurmountable.

I look at Jean’s life, and am inspired by her intelligence, strength and goodness. She was an arts editor for a small newspaper when we first met years ago. But she had a chemistry background before getting into journalism, hence her very practical nature.

Our political views mesh easily, as she is a great believer that racial identity does not define who we are, but creates differences that enrich the human experience. Her life stories always have wisdom and a bit of humor in them.

As we talked about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, she put her own take on the difficulties of veterans returning home from combat.

“Soldiers today come home with all kinds of physical injuries that would have killed them in past wars,” she said. “My ex-husband served on a ship during World War II, which was torpedoed. If he had been down in the bowels of the ship, he would have died. But when the shift changed, he was late getting to work, so he was just thrown clear of the ship in the blast.

“He hung onto a huge, dead fish in the water until he was rescued. Afterward, he had nightmares for some time about that incident, and he wasn’t even badly injured. I can’t imagine what people coming home today, with missing limbs and more, have to deal with.”

Hers is the generation that did what it had to, and when Jean had to have her hip replaced, she did what the doctor told her to do. She got up out of bed after the operation and exercised. She walks everywhere, and now that she’s given up driving, takes public transportation to continue her volunteer work, helping the elderly with their taxes and working in a public garden.

I can’t imagine a life more well lived than hers, and only hope that mine will reflect something of the same one day.

We can’t always be with those we love on their birthdays, but when we can, those are the memories that we’ll cherish the most. For life, after all, is about the memories we make every day.




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