Birthday Poems

I am celebrating my 52nd birthday today. And with each passing year, I feel the weight of mortality and the footsteps of death encroaching. It’s a presence I can’t escape, like Bergman’s grim reaper in The Seventh Seal.

In reality, though, you don’t need a birthday to be struck by that feeling. An impending sense of finality hits me every morning I awaken. But I also feel overwhelming gratitude when I am granted another morning, another day, another opportunity to create and share time and space and precious moments with loved ones.

A poem by the late poet Mark Strand seems fitting for this birthday and for this moment in time under COVID. To me it expresses the fleeting nature of existence.

Mark Strand, 1934-2014

The Coming of Light

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

To Mr. Strand’s words, I add a few poems of my own, all focused on the unavoidable outcome of existence. They remind me to accept the inevitable while still trying to extract meaning out of a life that must cease one day.

Interment

I imagine the coffin lid closing,
the pine box being lowered into the pit,
shovels of dirt hitting the top,
and no one hearing me scream,
“Let me out. Let me out,”
as I realize I’ve run out of time
to make my life count.

What You Get

There is nothing you can do
to avoid becoming dust.
You can try to elongate your life,
but you will expire one day.

And whether cremated
or buried in the earth,
your body will not
survive this world.
Maybe your soul will
travel somewhere else,
but really, who knows for sure?

In this existence,
you are granted only two things:
Right Here. Right Now.
That’s all you get.
So make the most of it.

Awareness

How many people are dying
in emergency rooms
at this exact moment?
Right now, how many people are
exhaling their last breaths?
How many loved ones
arrive too late to say goodbye?

Each day ushers in death—
and while we sleep,
smashed brains, shattered bones,
plugged arteries, faulty hearts,
cancer and other diseases
claim their victims.

We try not to notice.
We try to avoid the truth.
We rush about our lives,
never knowing when
our time will come—
until one day it does.

I can’t live like that.
I can’t avoid the obvious.
I need to face death daily,
to recognize it lurking, prowling,
ready to pounce on me.
This knowledge of death
creeping nearby forces me
to examine my existence
and ascertain if I am useful—
wise with my time or wasteful.

I accept the finite offering
of a limited lifespan—
what little measure
of time God has granted.
It’s up to me to make it count.

Outward Arrangements: Poems by Francis DiClemente (2021).

 

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Four Years Old

Our son, Colin Joseph, celebrates his fourth birthday today. And being a late bloomer in all aspects of life, I never expected to carry the title of husband and father. Yet here I am, nearly 51, a family man who has shed his bachelor status. And being the father of an autistic child has taught me the importance of striving and attempting—because that’s all you can do is try—to practice patience, humility, gratitude and acceptance. Acceptance is the key.

Colin Joseph sleeping.

I know this evening when we celebrate Colin’s birthday, he will likely not blow out the candles or eat a slice of his birthday cake. He may not pick up or play with his new Woody and Buzz Lightyear toys. He may preoccupy himself with the string of the balloon my wife bought him. And that could go on for hours.

We work hard to help Colin improve his communication and social interaction skills. But progress is slow, and we don’t know if he will get better with time. So I have to remind myself to love the child we have, exactly as he is right now, knowing he may never become a “normal” boy. It’s a crude reference, but the situation calls to mind the Stephen Stills’ song, “Love The One You’re With.”

“Well there’s a rose in a fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove
And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you’re with …”

For now, I am grateful for the blessing of the little angel/mischievous rascal who turns four years old today.

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Hitting the 50 Mark

As I celebrate my 50th birthday today, I want to offer some brief reflections on hitting the half-century mark.

Most importantly, I must express gratitude for surviving this long. Since 1984 I have endured four surgeries to remove a craniopharyngioma (pituitary tumor) and its remnants, as well as managing the hypopituitarism that followed. In subsequent years, the diseases of osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis have been added to my medical history. But my diminishing health has taught me some important lessons. Here they are:

  1. If not this, it would be something else. Yes, I have some challenges, but I have not been given a stage four cancer diagnosis, and I do not suffer another fatal illness. And for that I am thankful.
  2. I must accept the limitations imposed on me by these diseases, keeping the attitude of always trying to do my best and reevaluating my goals and what I am able to accomplish.
  3. The importance of cultivating an attitude of gratitude. I am thankful for my family, friends and full-time employment status, but I also continually remind myself to be grateful for the things we often take for granted. For me these are: standing upright, breathing normally, having brain function (although somewhat impaired at times), having five working senses and working limbs.

So there’s only one more thought on turning 50: I don’t know how many more years I have left on this planet, but I will try to make each day memorable, not in achievement but in the ways I connect with others, spread compassion and leave a positive impact wherever I tread.

 

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