I just turned 70. I knew it would be a hard birthday because my husband died almost two years ago, just one month short of his 71st birthday. So I planned to celebrate quietly by flying to Portland where my grandchildren live — ages 5 and 3 — and send their parents away for the weekend that was to be their first vacation without kids. Now that was impossible.
But this is a major birthday. Jewish tradition has a classic second century text about the stages of a life. It teaches: “at 70 for ‘the fullness of age.’” What does “fullness of age” mean in a pandemic? How should I enter into this stage when life doesn’t feel so full, or so certain?
These are the steps I took:
First I needed to acknowledge my sadness; this isn’t how I wanted my birthday to be. To say that out loud, even as I acknowledged how lucky I am to be able to shelter in place in a home I love, was helpful. Yes, it could be so much worse—and it is for so many people, but it is still a disappointment. And it is scary to suddenly be in a category labeled as “old” when that’s not how I feel.
Second, I tried to notice what does make my life feel full, even at this time of constriction. Thankfully, I am connected to a wonderful community and through the miracle of technology I remain active and engaged with others — virtual Passover celebrations, many opportunities to continue to learn, cocktail parties and afternoon tea gatherings, and the live-streamed synagogue services. And I am able to reach out through my community for help navigating some of the challenges of using this new technology, and to ask younger friends to go to the grocery store for me.
Third, I thought about what I didn’t want. I knew I didn’t want gifts. At this stage of my life, it is a time for decluttering, not accumulating. I already have all the stuff that I need.
Fourth, I talked to friends about what they might want for their milestone birthdays. Each of them focused on what gives them pleasure and how they could imagine doing that virtually. For example, cooking a meal at the same time — maybe even a cooking class with a chef through Zoom — and then eating together. Or baking a cake at the same time, with everyone blowing out a candle on their creation. Perhaps using the breakout rooms for more intimate conversation; the star of the moment could “visit” each room. Others told me they would be open to being surprised. The children of one friend turning 70 organized a very short video of birthday wishes.. Another was surprised by a virtual scrapbook. Still others were surprised by a Zoom call with friends singing happy birthday or a drive by “happy birthday” parade. One friend was delighted when her kids planned a virtual trivia game about her life by asking a small group of friends to send questions.
Fifth, I decided to be brave enough to ask for what I do want. My husband and I were working on a book called Getting Good at Getting Older before his diagnosis; he died before it was finished. My last promise to him was to finish it, and to do my best to get it out into the world where it might actually do some good. While the book was published this past October, long before the pandemic, the tools offered in the book are even more relevant now, as we older adults negotiate changing relationships with our adult children, friends, and aging parents, as well as our legacies and the communities we want to create to live in as we get older.
What I really wanted for my birthday was for my friends to gift the book to someone they think could benefit from it; in return I would donate the proceeds to a Covid 19 emergency relief fund. As Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and the author of “Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness said: “One of the best gifts we can give to those in our lives is permission to do whatever feels best to them this year without guilt.” And so I asked. Without (too much) guilt. And their generous responses felt like a blessing.
“At 70, for seyva, the fullness of age.” It is the same word that is in Psalm 92: “The righteous will blossom like a date palm; They will still be fruitful in seyva, in the fullness of age; they will be full of sap and still juicy.”
Still fruitful in the fullness of age. Isn’t that the blessing we all want for this milestone birthday, however we choose to celebrate?
Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, is a cofounder of ChaiVillageLA , a unique partnership between two synagogues to support congregants over 60 who want to age in the homes and neighborhoods they love. She was named in 2017 one of the top 50 Influencers in Aging by nextavenue.org. Her website is www.rabbilaurageller.com