How the Pandemic Changed the Way I Feel About Milestone Birthdays

Illustration by Hannah Agosta

Illustration by Hannah Agosta

I’ve always had trouble with the nines. At 29, 39, and 49, I was acutely aware of time. At each crossover to a milestone birthday, I’d reflect on the past decade and ready myself for the one ahead with a mix of hope, curiosity, and dread. I recently turned 60. My 59th year didn’t conjure up the same worries about the next big one.

Like most of us trying to crawl out of our quarantine cocoons, my attention has been on other matters. Most of my focus was on keeping alive and healthy, along with praying others stayed well. Given the staggering losses so many people suffered during the pandemic, my reflection on the cusp of this new decade was—who cares about a higher number? Being alive is good enough for me. In lieu of the showy, pre-COVID parties I threw for myself and loved ones, I took time to consider whether turning 60 had to be a huge turning point—or if it could be something else.

Twenty years as a Southern Californian stoked my beliefs in endless sunshine and a commitment to healthy lifestyles. These and other Orange County core values can foster faith we’ve got a shot at prolonging youthfulness. Sixty is the new 50 sounds like an achievable goal. But that tagline feels less relevant now. What if 60 is just 60? A number and nothing more.

COVID-19 upended a sense of time for many of us. In the lingo of 12-step recovery, “One Day at a Time” now seems more relevant than considering life in 10-year increments. The mindfulness practice I engage in offers a similar perspective. It suggests there’s a chance to be free from the confines of the specific day, year, and hour; and teaches me that a birthday is another day to live in a timeless manner.

“We can be really alive, fully present, and very happy during breakfast-making,” Tibetan Buddhist monk Thich Nat Han wrote. “We can see making breakfast as mundane work or as a privilege—it just depends on our way of looking.” His teachings helped me picture a quieter birthday. My husband and I had left our beloved California home in 2017 to move to Maryland and help my mom. We took frequent trips West before the pandemic. I hoped to practice the monk’s ideas during my first trip back to Orange County.


 

The pandemic shook up another mindset I had about aging—the need to look youthful “for my age.” I hoped I could be like my mom. She has always looked a decade younger, including now, at 95. (And she has pulled this off without employing any highly skilled cosmetic surgeons.)

Admittedly, in the past, I flaunted my middle-aged status because I relished the “No, you’re not 58!” comments it elicited. Even when living in our notoriously age-conscious region, I willingly disclosed my birth year—1961. I did so while cloaked in my refuse-to-grow-up uniform of white jeans and Converse sneakers. This year, when one of my stepdaughters learned I was turning 60, she was surprised. “I thought you were younger.” Her words didn’t give me the happy jolt I used to get when people commented on my youthfulness. I realized, any desire I had to pass for 50 is gone.

The past year and a half has helped me better understand aging through the lens of a close friend who’d nursed her brother through years of cancer treatments. She prayed he would be released from pain. When he died on her birthday, she wrote: “I’ll always have a reminder to be grateful for each year I get. And certainly, I have lost the privilege of complaining about getting older.” Indeed, the tolls of the pandemic made this clear. Being alive at any age is a gift.

I’ve also figured out I have no need for do-overs. In reviewing the past five decades, I can see that each era included its share of pain, grace, and joy. At 50, I was newly in love and engaged to be married for the first time. It was a wonderful year. Sure, given the option, I’d cash in a few middle-aged aches and let go of worrying about my elderly mom. But overall, each decade has been better than the one before it.


 

While many of us have begun to gingerly see one another, I remained unsure how I wanted to celebrate my milestone. In childhood, birthdays were a go-big proposition for me, fueled by my mom, who believed the festivities should last a full month. As an adult, I kept the spirit of Mom’s supersized tradition, packing my home with friends for show-and-tell parties where people performed a song, told a story, showed artwork.

Last year, my 9-year-old-self stamped her feet over not being able to gather people. I quickly snapped out of it and had a sweet, nice-enough Zoom party. But a year more of pandemic-fatigue left me with limited energy for event planning. Many of my potential guests, whether my age or much younger, are as exhausted as I am. Rather than a party, I thought we might all enjoy a good nap—in the style of our kindergarten days.

In the end, on the actual day, I went with a minimalist’s grand plan for my 60th. I greeted it with the awareness that I’ve been given the gift of living this long, and the grace of one more day to appreciate the people I love. My birthday was simply another day to make and eat breakfast. I even hosted that virtual slumber party. From the comfort of our own homes, we laid out our blankies for a delicious afternoon nap.

The next day, I boarded my first plane in 18 months to see loved ones in Orange County.  My cousins welcomed me to their beautiful Corona Del Mar home. I barely mentioned my birthday. We got carryout from Thai Del Mar and enjoyed it from a bench at Lookout Point. The next morning, I walked Balboa Island with my cousin, marveling over the flowers and discussing our grandparents. And when visiting other loved ones and catching up, my mind wasn’t on my birthday. With gratitude, I kicked off my new decade without fanfare, and with people who love one another at whatever age we find ourselves.

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