I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

Friday, July 31st (countdown to 60 – 4,000 minutes to go … but who’s counting).

I completed my MBSR course last week, just in time for my birthday.  I’m so grateful to Dr. Lucinda Sykes for her guidance through this course.  She gave me a great birthday gift in one of the things that she said to us in our last class:  “This moment is everything; this moment is your life.  Everything else is either memory or expectation.  This moment.”  Wow!  This moment is good.  No worries.  Much.

End of my 59th year

Yes, I know, yesterday I told you I was going to wait until the end of my birthday to reflect on the whole experience which might be just the thing I need to do to learn what life wants me to learn on this next day of transition.  It’s just after 8 p.m. the evening of August 2nd; being Jewish my birthday will begin at sunset tonight … about an hour from now.  I’ve had a bubble bath and washed my hair; we’ve just come back from a day and a half at the Blue Skies Music Festival which was filled with the joy of being able to be there for a while with my IMG_1755daughter and her family and sharing that with David and … bonus … reconnecting with a couple who were dear friends in my Peterborough years and talking as if we’d last spoken a few days ago but somehow had years and years of details – our lives and our childrens’ – to catch up on.  For me it is still a joy to bask in the feeling that I get sitting on a hillside, listening to bluegrass music (or perhaps Washboard Hank … who leads scores of children through all of the campsites early on Sunday morning, in costumes and with instruments) the goal being to make sure by the time they’re back there’s nobody still sleeping anywhere.  So, enough about before … about now.

Out of the bath the first decision I had to make was “What do I wear entering my 60th year?”  Somehow that seemed important.  We’d already decided that we’d celebrate this transit-moment quietly at home together so I was looking for something in my closet when … there it was … a lovely black silk nightgown and robe with feathers adorning the neckline and sleeves.  A gift from David on our first hiking trip in Kananaskis.  Perfect!

Now, what do I want to  be doing to “bring my birthday in”?  Had a little meditation on that question.  Here’s what I know.  I want to enter writing … and here I am doing that.  I want to send an email to my heart families … those who share ancestry and those who have come to be a part of my family  through their deep and abiding friendship.  So I’m going to say goodbye for now, write a few emails, and then settle into a lovely evening with my sweetie.

60 years and 1 day old

What a perfect day it has been.  After days and days (and weeks it seems) of rain today was sunny.  David and I got up early to get ready for the party.  By 11 o’clock everything we could do well ahead of time had been done, we loaded the kayak onto the car, and off we went so that I could have a birthday paddle and he could have a my-birthday run.  I was skimming along, listening to the sound of my paddles dipping in and out of the water, and listening to music on my iPod.  Let me go back – for just a moment – about 20 years.   I’ve been gathering with a group of friends (and family) for a “kumzits” (Jewish version of a hootenanny) for many years.  Once, when we were meeting at Stuart and Joan’s, we were asked to each bring the lyrics to a song that we could teach to each other.  I chose to bring the words to When I’m Gone; it’s an old Phil Ochs song that I’ve always thought could be my theme song … if I was a movie.  It says – poetically and musically – just what I believe to be the proverbial point of it all.  Indeed I’d once (several times really) asked my kids to practice that song because I’d like them to sing it at my funeral (yes, I have some strange funerary fantasies … but we’ll save those for another time).  In essense (the words will follow) it says that there are many important things we need to do in our lives .. and we need to do them now, while we’re “here”.   By the time I finished my paddle I’d hatched a plan for the party and enjoyed basking in birthday sunshine.  Perfect!

Before I tell you about the rest of the day I need to go back a little bit farther for a minute.  The first birthday party I remember was the year I turned 5.  We were sitting at a table in our backyard when my mother brought in a birthday cake with candles and everybody started singing Happy Birthday.  I sang too.  “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you …”: no problem so far.  “Happy birthday dear Sylvia …”.  And that’s when I burst into tears and ran out of the yard.  Why were they all picking on me?  My mother managed to comfort me and bring me back to the party but I think I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to that song ever since.  Now that I’m 60 I’m figuring that I don’t have to sing songs that just aren’t “my tune” any more.

IMG_1810So back to last night.  What an amazing celebration we had!  David manned the BBQ – and everything else – with great aplomb.  The house – and backyard (unbelievably, it wasn’t raining) – were filled with family and friends.  After we’d all eaten David asked everyone to get a glass of champagne – or whatever they’d like to drink – and gather in the back yard.  As David and I stood on the back steps looking at a yard filled with smiling, loving faces I was absolutely struck by how I could scan the room and see my life.  There was my mother, the one person who has known me – and loved me and supported me – my whole life.  There was Sylvia McPhee – my first grade teacher.  My sister Molly and two of her wonderful children (the other two called to send me their love and good wishes).  Two of my own children were there (Motti and Nili made it in person, Josh is coming later in August but had already sent me the most sweet, loving birthday wishes), three of my grandchildren (Art, Noam and Frieda were here; Sol will come visit with his Dad in a few weeks).  Friends from every walk of life; Rina who worked with me in Kosovo, Eleanor and Linda who worked with me at the Ministry, David Lefkowitz who’s brought music into my life for so long.  Old friends and new ones.  Who was flipping burgers and making sure that everything was beautiful?  Of course it was my sweet David who really outdid himself last night.   He gave a beautiful toast which brought a smile to my lips and tears to my eyes.  So much love.

David ended his toast by telling everyone that they’d be surprised to know that I was going to “have the last word” and he invited me to speak.  Struggling to hold back my own tears, I thanked everyone for a lifetime of care, a lifetime of sharing triumphs and struggles, joys and sorrows, peaks and valleys.  I told them about my aversion to singing Happy Birthday, about how each of them had enriched my life so much,  and then I passed out the lyrics to “When I’m Gone” and asked them to join me in singing it.  And sing they did!  That was just the beginning of our evening of singing; for the next couple of hours some folks gathered in the living room to sing (2 guitars, 1 drum, many voices … at the risk of repeating myself … perfect!)  while others gathered in the den or in the backyard to talk.  By 1 a.m. everyone had gone home, the little ones were sleeping, and Motti, Lauren and I had finished cleaning up.  We took the last bottle of champagne outside to toast to our lives and bask in the beauty of the day … and night.  Perfect.

It’s time for me to get into the first day of being 60 so I’ll leave you with a song to sing (the lyrics follow so you can sing along if you’d like).

By the way, I’m glad to say that through the generosity of my friends and family we put together enough money last night (I’d asked that people not bring birthday presents … after all, what more could I possibly need?) to cover the tuition for two young friends in Kosovo – Arsenal and Granit – for next year.  Chatting with Arsenal online this morning I told him that I’d like to pay his tuition for next year and he told me this was the happiest day of his life.  Mine too!

WHEN I’M GONE … Phil Ochs

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I’m gone
My pen won’t pour a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t breathe the bracing air when I’m gone
And I can’t even worry ’bout my cares when I’m gone
Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t be running from the rain when I’m gone
And I can’t even suffer from the pain when I’m gone
Can’t say who’s to praise and who’s to blame when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone
Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

All my days won’t be dances of delight when I’m gone
And the sands will be shifting from my sight when I’m gone
Can’t add my name into the fight while I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone while I’m here
So I guess I’ll have to do it
I guess I’ll have to do it
Guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here


5 responses to “I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

  1. Sounds like a fabulous party and birthday. And the singing part… Have I told you about our family a capala singing nights around the campfire?

    Again – happy 60th.


  2. Sylvia – your birthday celebrations are over but the memories are just beginning. What a wonderful time you had with family and friends.

    We have had our grandson in Australia for his 13th.birthday It is the first time I have ever been able to hug him on his special day and share the party. A lot of joy here ‘Down Under ‘on the 30th. July.

  3. Sylvia Bereskin

    Joy and grandchildren … sort of like lock and key, hand and glove, salt and pepper. Glad you were able to celebrate your grandson’s birthday together.

  4. Happy birthday to you! Your poem is so beautiful, I have to repeat one stanza that speaks to me here.

    And I won’t breathe the bracing air when I’m gone
    And I can’t even worry ’bout my cares when I’m gone
    Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone
    So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

    Thank you for sharing this!

    • Sylvia Bereskin

      Thanks Cheryl. Glad that you liked Phil Ochs inspirational words. One of the things I miss most about teaching is leading choirs and listening to large groups of children sing these words. Hhmm … wonder if there’s a way I could volunteer to lead a school choir? I just might want to check that out; thanks for your inspiration.

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