Happy Birthday to Me

Before the emails from my Subaru dealer, dentist, mortgage broker, optometrist, a former financial planner and other unknowns all wishing me a happy birthday, I had been thinking about life and mortality this very morning, the start of my 70th year of life in this heartbreaking time of Covid 19. A scene replayed itself in my thoughts from years ago when I used to lunch each week with two fellow clergy who were like brothers to me. I was the youngest and the other two were a little over 10 and twenty years older than me. Jim, the oldest, was Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral, Blayney his junior by 10 years was the Rector of the largest and wealthiest Episcopal Church in the area, and me, Rector of a good-sized Episcopal Church that had a reputation for a liberal bent. I recall the times Blayney and I stood in the Cathedral parking lot under the Dean’s office window and shouted, “Hey Jimmy, can you come out and play?”

The second-floor window flung opened and leaning out the Dean whined, “I can’t. Mom says I have to practice piano.”

“Aww, c’mon, Jimmy!” we griped watching him from beneath the window.

“Oh…OK. I’ll be right down.”

We laughed, in part, because it was, no doubt, a scene that had played itself out many times in Jim’s life as a boy. Now, he was an accomplished pianist who had considered a life as a concert pianist at one point. Today, Jim is well into his 90th year, frail and suffers with Parkinson’s causing some periodic confusion and the truth is I have not heard him play piano for many years. But there was indeed a time when he sat down at one of the many parties Episcopal clergy were famous for and play anything from Chopin to showtunes with the rest of us gathered about the piano listening in awe or merrily singing along as if in some downtown piano bar.

I actually ran through this scene as I showered this morning. Pondering it all in light of each birthday’s gift of a growing awareness of my own finitude, I thought about my clergy brothers and how much I admire and love them for their longstanding friendship, wit, intellectual capabilities, teaching, writing, oratory skills, and, innumerable gifts, including, of course, Jim’s musical gifts.

What is a life but the construction of ever-widening sets of skills, a growing awareness and exploitation of our gifts as they unfold, an expanding lexicon of words that allow us to articulate our increasingly complex thoughts and ideas with greater clarity, and the always growing collection of things…objects… some functional and practical, others nothing more than aesthetically pleasing. We fill up the available space- physical, psychic, intellectual, and the like as if this were our life’s purpose. I do understand. Like nature, it seems our sense of a purposeful life too abhors a vacuum. We become collectors of all manner of things to shape our perceived sense of purpose.

But then there is the day it comes to an end; that is, we come to an end. And so, objects collected are cleaned up and dispensed with. The Salvation Army gladly takes the luxury suits we wore, watches, rings, and gem-studded bracelets sit in closed jewelry boxes, and the now silent piano becomes a furniture feature on which to display photographs of days gone by, and everything…how should I describe it…everything that seemed to make a person this specific person…their accrued wisdom, a broad set of skills acquired over a lifetime, their hidden gifts gradually uncovered, their sense of humor and the laughter it engendered are suddenly gone and frustratingly only vaguely recalled, after a short time.

It was this reflection that forced me once again to ask the nagging question; is a life not more than the aggregate of these things that seem to not just slowly dissolve, but rapidly vaporize when we are no more? Are we merely a memory that over time grows dim until we reemerge someday as a novelty on Ancestry, a name in a block on the family tree with the dates we were ‘hatched and dispatched’ below it? Perhaps, you too, as I, have grown accustomed to several CNN anchors honoring Covid victims with the Jewish acclamation, “May their memory be a blessing”. Is it enough to have someone wrap a lifetime’s worth of…well, living into such a tidy six-word summation: “may their memory be a blessing”?  Or, does an approach to living a life whose value is somehow more explicitly tied to the sum of their actual varied accomplishments they have tangibly left behind, seem to us somehow better even if the memory of their association with these collections or accomplishments still dims over time? I don’t know. But I do know this; that the old adage, “You can’t take it with you” is not entirely accurate. In truth, you do take most of it with you even as you leave some things behind. But the “things” can’t replace what the deceased takes- the things will not make you laugh, or hold you close in your grief, or play the piano and sing, or broaden your outlook through their hard-acquired wisdom. And still the memories fade, often straying into the apocryphal, leaving us with a waxen recollection sculpted from some form of collective memory.

So, I am mindful of how hard it is to conclude anything from these reflections except to underscore what you already know; that we cannot change the outcome by enhancing the size or content of our various collections…of what we have accrued over the course of our life. We still will call it ‘a game’ some day. Yet, for me, I believe it best to accept with humility the inevitable end we all walk toward. But also, and this too is related to humility, I think we should do what we do, collect what we collect, create the experiences we create for their own sake and for their own unique moment in time. They will pass away like all things do but in a way that I cannot articulate but feel strongly I know, these will reside somewhere among the ethereal and unseen collection of experiences that make us and others who we are…I carry the DNA of hundreds of those who have gone before who have rained it down on me and that, for me, has to be enough.

-David Heaney

 December 3, 2020

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