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Surprised by 70

I turned 70 this week and was surprised in two ways.

First was the surprise party Champa and my daughters-in-law organized at a local restaurant. I thought she was taking me to have dinner with two friends but was stunned to be greeted by my extended family in a private room.

Some had flown in from New York, Newark or Atlanta. Others drove from Philadelphia or here in Durham. They read me speeches, poems and toasts. They sang “Happy Birthday” and cheered as my seven grandchildren helped me blow out the candles. After the party, most of them stayed on through the weekend.

I hadn’t been looking forward to this birthday. A decade ago, when I turned 60, I was still working. Five years ago, I was wrapping up my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova. But now, I was entering a decade that used to be synonymous with old age.

Then my birthday surprised me in a second way, by reminding me of how full my life is, regardless of what lies ahead. As my son Paul said in his toast: “You are constantly graduating into new and exciting chapters of your life. Now in retirement, we see you setting a great example that it’s possible to carve your own path, joining Peace Corps again, traveling the world with your beautiful wife, enjoying time with family and friends, living life to the fullest, impacting more people’s lives. And your hairline is still going strong.”

My older sister called me “young at heart and young in deed.”

I’m hardly alone in embracing this stage of life and in trying to be intentional instead of drifting — in my case, through a blend of travel, volunteering and other engagement. Large numbers of older Americans are also redefining how retirement can be “not exactly” in many ways.

Yet it still meant a lot to me to hear these descriptions and receive birthday greetings from around the world. They told me how much I have to be grateful for even after a year in which I lost several dear friends and experienced a health scare of my own, not to mention the pandemic and assorted world crises.

Five years ago. I marked my 65th birthday with a blog post marveling at how my life had turned in unpredictable directions. I ended that post by saying “I expect to remain ‘not exactly retired’ after 65 but don’t really know what will happen next. I am eager to be surprised anew. Celebrating this birthday has reminded me how rich your life can become when you let it take you places you never predicted.”

Remarkably, it has become even richer since then. I know that my good fortune could change tomorrow, and that it carries a responsibility to serve others. For now, though, I’m celebrating, and I’m giving the last word to my cousin Stephanie, who sent me this short poem:

There once was a man who turned seventy

Whose tale can’t be told with brevity

Happy Birthday to you

May your wishes come true

And your years be filled with levity