Until 120

Earlier this week, my father-in-law celebrated his 80th birthday, and I feel more than a twinge of regret that our family was not able to be present. It isn’t only the expensive airfare or the fact that his birthday fell at the very end of the kids’ school vacation, because I know that with careful planning we could have circumvented those obstacles. My regret stems from the awareness of my failure to plan more carefully and to ensure that we were there.

Perhaps I was more skilled at careful planning when I was in my twenties.

In January of 1991, my Grandma Minnie turned 80. I was studying in Israel that year, and on the eve of the Persian Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein aimed Scud missiles toward Tel Aviv, I boarded an airplane bound for New York to surprise my grandmother at her birthday party.

I brought few clothes with me and left my government-issued gas mask under the bed in my Jerusalem apartment, fully expecting to return it to the security office at Hebrew University when I returned to Israel the following week. (I was given another mask when I landed in Tel Aviv, but that’s a story for a different day.)  In my backpack, I carried a small, silver-plated prayer book. The only words written in English in the entire book were “printed in Israel in 1969” and a brief inscription that I’d written by hand on the inside cover.

siddurEarlier this week, I pulled that prayer book down from the bookcase to reread the inscription. I was hoping to find inspiration for a note that I’d planned to write to my father-in-law. Standing in the center of my living room, reading what I’d written to my grandma, I was struck by the timelessness of these words of the Psalmist: “Our days number seventy years and, by means of special strength, eighty years.”  Twenty-three years later, an 80th birthday is still a milestone occasion; every birthday is a reason to celebrate.

I copied a portion of the inscription onto a piece of stationery, added my thoughts about the special strength that my father-in-law has achieved in his lifetime, and signed it with a traditional birthday blessing: May you live until 120, like Moses. Then I tucked it into a humorous birthday card that my son had chosen for his Saba Gene.

If Grandma Minnie were alive—and turning 103 later this month—she would say, “You should go to the weddings [and other happy occasions] because you always go to the funerals.” I bet she would hop a plane to Arizona to celebrate with my father-in-law.

I know he doesn’t judge our absence as a missed opportunity to be together on his birthday. I know that he appreciated the heartfelt message that I wrote by hand and mailed to him, because he called to thank me. I told him that I wished we could’ve been there. He reassured me that he would be willing to celebrate again with us.

At that moment, I realized that I miss my father-in-law. I haven’t seen him since August, and I probably won’t see him again until July—long after his return to Michigan—when he is already halfway to 81 and a little closer to 120. And I felt more than a twinge of regret that I didn’t follow Grandma Minnie’s advice, and my heart, as I did in January of 1991.


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