Every year for something like the past 38 years, Randy Marchany of Blacksburg has been hosting a birthday party for himself and several college buddies who were born within days of his birthday in July. My birthday, coincidentally, is in July as well. Randy is a charismatic and musically talented man towards whom people naturally gravitate. I have been a guest at this party for the past several years.
This past Saturday night, we arrived to find perhaps 25 or 30 people already there. One of the people there was a man named Andy who was a former customer of mine when I ran a printing company. I had read in the obituary pages of our local newspaper recently that he had lost his wife to cancer only two weeks earlier. I had written him a condolence note and he acknowledged receiving it. He appeared to be in reasonable spirits under the circumstances. His wife had been sick for many years and I guessed that he had accepted the inevitability of her demise.
At one point as I was mulling around, I noticed a brown T-shirt hanging on a coat hanger from an outdoor pavilion. Printed on it were the words, “I’m not dead yet.” I didn’t have a chance to look closely before I was distracted by someone but I remember seeing a number of handwritten notes scribbled on it.
A few moments later, a pert, petite woman, perhaps in her 60s, introduced herself to me. Her name was JJ. She said, “I noticed you looking at my shirt. It is in reference to the fact that I have stage four colon cancer. All predictions are that this will be the last edition of this party I will be able to attend.”
I mentioned to JJ that Andy had lost his wife and she asked me if I thought she could speak with him. I told her I was sure it was fine and I took her over to meet him. I stopped back to see them later and apparently they had a lively conversation.
A few moments later, I found myself in conversation with another old friend, a man named Jim who was scheduled for knee replacement surgery.
I will be 57 years old next month and most of the people at this party were 60 years old or more. I think pondering one’s own mortality is not an exercise that should occupy a lot of our everyday thoughts, unless we are suffering an incurable disease. Both of my parents are in reasonable health in their early 80s. I have always felt that if I were able to avoid serious accidents I would consider 100 years of age to be a reasonable expectation for myself. However, it is certainly not a foregone conclusion.
The next morning I spoke with JJ and again at breakfast. She was curious about my life and my work. She grew up in a Virginia town along the border with West Virginia. Her town was one of many featured in my first book, The Spine of the Virginias. I told her about it and when she handed over the money to pay for it, I went fiddling around for change. She grinned good-naturedly and said, “A few cents in change really doesn’t matter much to me at this stage of my life.”
I was impressed by the equanimity she showed and I wondered if I would have shown the same grace if similarly afflicted.