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Those passing birthdays

May 1, 2019

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress.

— “Sailing to Byzantium,” William Butler Yeats

I had a birthday recently, and briefly I remembered those lines from Macbeth about “tomorrow and tomorrow” leading the way to “dusty death.” Of course birthdays can be a time of celebration, particularly for children and younger people. Seniors have to be aware, however, that there isn’t that much time left above ground, and it becomes more poignant as one witnesses the passing of not just parents, but spouses or close friends.

If one has a strong religious conviction, then death is just a door to the next world. If one doesn’t share those beliefs, then aging and the approaching “final curtain” may be a tad disturbing. A friend argues that we should not fear death. We were dead for centuries before the sperm and egg joined at a precise moment in time a space and we will be dead for the rest of eternity — but one can fear the process.

In “Casino Royale” (1967), Woody Allen is facing a firing squad and has this argument: “You can’t shoot me! I have a very low threshold of death. My doctor says I can’t have bullets enter my body at any time.”

I’ve had some memorable birthdays best left to the imagination and a few stressful ones. My 21st birthday was a big celebration, including friends, my parents, a favorite uncle Emmett, a newspaper writer and early mentor. A homemade movie was made, and it is bittersweet to watch it now, because most of the dancing, drinking revelers on the film are gone. In my late 20s, I became a year older in a hospital while recovering from aseptic meningitis. Another sad one occurred when I visited a friend, Rebecca Bruns, in a hospital. She was a promising writer from New Orleans and more like a sister than a friend, but bone cancer took her at 43.

There are those familiar questions. What meaningful thing have I accomplished? Samuel Beckett has a remarkable short play called “Krapp’s Last Tape” in which an old man named Krapp — pun intended — is listening to declarations he recorded on previous birthdays and realizing he’s wasted his life writing bad philosophical works. The only ancient tape worth hearing is one where Krapp hears a younger version of himself foolishly saying goodbye to the one love of his life. What follows is an ironic passage that ends the play.

“Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”

Krapp stares before him as the tape runs on in silence. It’s a heartbreaking moment.

I must add that my last birthday was a quiet dinner spent with an old friend. The restaurant contained memories of past dinners and birthday parties. There was a lot of laughter and the food was excellent. Perhaps we should enjoy life while we are among the living, and share love with friends and family while we can. Those years won’t come back.

Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.