The gift of birthdays



I was in the maelstrom of mid-life – the tsunami of kids, commitments, work, worry, aging parents – when The New York Times Magazine published an essay by the writer and renowned editor William Maxwell.


In "Nearing 90," Maxwell contemplated reaching that milestone in the most perfectly complete, exquisitely concise summation of a life I know. In 1,000 words he covered all he had endured, all he had accomplished, and all he had yet to face.


I was mesmerized.


I cut it out and have kept it for 25 years.


I reread it annually as my own May 30th birthday approaches. And as I get older, Maxwell's words resonate ever more deeply.


"Out of the corner of my eye I see my 90th birthday approaching. It is one year and six months away. How long after that will I be the person I am now?"


For Maxwell, it was one year and eleven-and-a-half months.


Maxwell was born on August 16, 1908, and died on July 31, 2000, eight days after the death of his wife of 55 years, Emily. Harriet O'Donovan Sheehy, writing in The Guardian, said Maxwell "died of old age and that unfashionable ailment, a broken heart..."


There are worse ways to go when approaching 92.


Maxwell's mother died of influenza when he was 10, so he knew loss early. That experience made him extraordinarily capable of both expressing himself and yet avoiding histrionics when conveying it, according to his colleagues.


"That he kept faith with the wound of his early knowledge helped him, I think, to become a happy man,” the novelist Shirley Hazzard ("The Great Fire"), whom Maxwell edited at The New Yorker, has written.


He recognized what was important, acknowledging the losses but embracing what remained. Which is why I keep returning to the ending of Maxwell's essay:


"Are you writing?’' people ask -- out of politeness, undoubtedly. And I say, `Nothing very much.’ The truth but not the whole truth -- which is that I seem to have lost touch with the place that stories and novels come from. I have no idea why. I still like making sentences. “Every now and then, in my waking moments, and especially when I am in the country, I stand and look hard at everything.”


Me, too.