I am currently living through a phase of meaningless birthdays. Not that each trip around is not a triumph, as my older brother so regularly asserts, but the benefits and privileges extended to me at each tick mark are less startling. I can say this with some measure of certainty, since I just lived through my son's twenty-first birthday. Much fuss and ballyhoo accompanied this transition. We stopped talking about our child and started addressing our adult. There were a lot of discussions about the responsibilities of turning twenty-one and the importance of designated drivers and knowing when to say when. Do not wait until English becomes optional.
Fifty-six? Not such a lollapalooza. Not like ages one through twelve, for example. Those were the years when six months made a difference. Being six and a half was a vast and impressive change from being plain old six. There was a race to get to get older. At the time, I didn't imagine what the finish line might be, but looking back it seems as though that magical twenty-one was where we were all headed. At twenty-one, you could rule the world. Or at least you could buy them a beer.
Of course, when I was young, there was that curious ledge upon which one could stand called eighteen. In the olden days, there was this thing called three point two beer. It was some weird concession to the idea that if you were old enough to vote and old enough to sign up for selective service, you were old enough to swill watered-down beer. For me, this was the point at which my professional drinking career began. There wasn't a lot of sneaking around, stealing booze for me. I waited until it was my turn, even for "baby beer," and then made the most of it.
And it made the most of me. Three years later, when "the hard stuff" was made available to me legally, I was already pretty solidly into my binge/recover/binge phase. Never needed a fake ID. Somewhere in there, I turned twenty-nine. A little voice inside my head suggested that maybe I had enough. This little voice echoed all those larger voices that had been suggesting to me for some time that I had already passed the tipping point. I like to tell people who are just finding out about my sobriety that I got a note from Milwaukee asking to please save some beer for everyone else.
Like maybe my son.
At fifty-six, I feel like I can speak with some mild authority about how to keep your mind and body humming along to my ripe old age. Knee surgery. Kidney stones. A few near misses. One suspended license. These are the gifts that keep on giving. And a piece of chocolate cake.