BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
HRH Elizabeth Queen of England will “turn” 95 years old on 21 April, this year–coming up soon.
April 21, 2021
Mr. James Francis O’Neil, BA, MA, will “turn” 80 years old–still fifteen years younger than the Queen.
. . .
“A man is sane morally at 30, rich mentally at 40, wise spiritually at 50–or never.”–Sir William Osler (1849–1919) [Quoted in Forbes Magazine, June 1961]
. . .
Is any one birthday more important than another? Is any one particular birthday more significant than another?
Certain days of our lives, calendar days, occurring but annually, come to be celebrated (or not celebrated, or tried-to-be-forgotten): our BIRTH-DAY, anniversary of our birth. For some, it is important not to forget, not to be forgotten, as in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Emily Webb’s twelfth birthday. Was that birthday important or significant? (Is there a significant difference?)
In a lifetime, certain calendar birth anniversary days (beginning with #1, the 1st, the First) are regarded more highly and celebrated–by others and by the “celebrant.”
21–I could not wait until I turned twenty-one, to have my first legal alcoholic–spirits drink. Oh, I had drinks years before that special “21st,” but not legally in Illinois. So, there I was, in the club car of the Illinois Central RR, April 1962, returning to classes after the Spring-Easter Break.
My Uncle Bill had taught me the best about cigars (“That’s what I do: I smoke cigars. And I know things.”) and was teaching me about single malts and sour mash. He made good Manhattans. “I’ll have a Manhattan,” I told the railroad waiter, nonchalantly. (I was not about to venture “a Rob Roy, please.”) “I need some proof of age,” he retorted.
Oh, I had that birthday gift, how important that April date was on my driver’s license (gotten on another important birthday in April, #16)) 1962 minus 1941 equals: BINGO: 21!) What power! What meaning! What significance! A date to be remembered–for life!
65–I skipped over a few years to here. I don’t need to retell about “The Big 4-0” or “Half Century” (really?). I did have a wonderful 60th Surprise Party that genuinely surprised me. Family and friends, great foods, and a well-decorated cake, in the shape and design of an airport runway. (I am an avid aircraft-lover.) That birthday had special significance for me. It was special. (Hallmark says 60 is diamonds; I received none.)
So, the years 1–ONE–FIRST to 65 brought me surprise birth anniversaries, parties, gifts, and memoriesofatime, but not, of course, gifts in the Hallmark “official” list for anniversaries. (Those are mostly for weddings, especially 5/wood; 10/tin/; 15/crystal/; 19/jade; and 25/silver/, 50/gold/, and 75/diamond.)
Then came the BIGGIE, the real BIGGIE: 65 . . . and important significant MEDICARE. What can I say now? Incredible! I cannot believe I have partaken of that great social program . . . for fifteen (15) years!
Where has the time gone? Who knows where the time has gone?
* * *
Her: “Thank you, Mr. O’Neil, Professor O’Neil, for your time–which is so important to you–and your willingness to talk about your 80th Birthday. How do you feel as you approach that 80th April Day?”
Me: “Growing old isn’t easy. But I do not regret growing older. ‘It’s a privilege denied to many.’”
Her: “Have you learned anything special in the recent past, say five or ten years, which prepared you for this time?”
Me: “Lifting. I used to lift, unload box cars when I was twenty-two. It is harder now to lift a 20-pound bag of mulch. I am aware of not being able to go fast, but I have clocks in every room, I am so aware of time. More time needed to plan for activities. And, yes, being forgetful: Being in a room and wondering, ‘Why did I come into here? Oh, yes.’”
Her: “What would you say is your greatest achievement in your eighty years?”
Me: “Sobriety: To accept the things I cannot change; to have the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Powerful stuff here.”
Her: “Aside from all your friends and family, is there someone special you would like to invite to your birthday party?”
Me: “The author and essayist Joseph Epstein whom I have admired for a long time, for his essays of wit, thought, wisdom, and history.” (“If I am allowed another special guest, I would like Henry David Thoreau, too. And if there is one more extra chair, I would like to hear the barbaric yawp of Walt Whitman.”)
Her: “At present, what is your greatest desire?”
Me: “My 81st birthday, at home, with my family, virus free.”
Her: “You were in education for nearly fifty years. You taught writing and literature, and were a school administrator for seven years, too. Do you have any special words of wisdom that you can share that have had an influence upon your career?”
Me: “‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ is one of my favorites. ‘The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ is one I learned early on, from Shakespeare. And it still has meaning for me. ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ from Milton. Profound. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ One more? ‘Know thyself.’ Something I learned long ago in Greek class.”
Her: “I know you have done much reading in all those years, surely from Aristotle and Plato, to Proust, and Kurt Vonnegut. But you must have some ‘favorite’ or special author or book that you return to for guidance or inspiration.”
Me: “I don’t have a special author whom I can often quote from, like lines or words from Shakespeare, or the poetry of Milton, or Emily Dickinson. But if I were on that imaginary deserted island with only one book to read over and over, I would have to choose my black leather-bound Book of Common Prayer. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten would be a great choice–or Paradise Lost. But I’ll keep the prayer book.
Her: “Of the 80 years, what would you say was the ‘Best Year of Your Life’?”
Me: “My 80th, for sure, considering all my high school classmates who have passed on. But that is a difficult question to answer. Year of Courtship, marriage, having children, career, graduate school, travel to Europe; moving years: Chicago, to Minnesota to Florida. There cannot be a ‘Best Year of My Life.’”
Her: “Well, then, is there a ‘worst’?”
Me: “This is not so difficult to answer, for it always comes up the same: 10th grade! No matter whenever I think about it. My surgeries: appendix and tonsils. Nearly flunking geometry: A=B, B=C, ergo A=C. Theorems and proofs. Pythagoras and c2 = a2 + b2. How tough that was! In addition to learning Latin in 9th grade, I began the study of Greek in 10th grade! α β γ δ ε ζ η κ π φ ω and more–I forget the exact order.”
Her: “Professor, you have allowed me a unique opportunity to hear about you and some of your history. Thank you again. Would you like to add anything else now?”
Me: “Thank you, and you’re welcome. Yes, a few more words, if I might read from Walt Whitman Sands at Seventy, “After the Supper and Talk”: ‘“. . . after the day is done . . . Good-bye . . . O so loth to depart! Garrulous to the very last.’”
© JAMES F O’NEIL 2021