Ever since the tradition ended of my grandmother scouring local supermarkets for a Pepperidge Farm refrigerated chocolate layer cake, birthdays haven’t been the same for me. The annual celebration of my birth each April 9th has been less meaningful than other life milestones - like decades of HIV survival, relationship anniversaries, or years since last brain surgery. The "decade" birthdays, though, such as hitting 50 this year, call me to reflect on what matters most in life.
One of my maternal grandfather’s pearls of wisdom was this, uttered just before his 65th birthday in 1983 to my 18 year-old self: “The best part of getting older is that you’re still alive. The worst part of being alive is that you’re getting older.” He was just a year out from surviving advanced colorectal cancer and visibly worn down, but he would soon emerge from an early retirement to work full-time for five years at his old job and to play an active role in his church. I had always thought of him as “old”-- he was 50, fairly sedentary, and unathletic when he assumed the male parent role for me upon my parents’ divorce -- but at 65 he was declaring that he was OLD.
As a father figure, Pap-Paw did his best to nurture my intellect and to cultivate an interest in the world beyond our neighborhood. The world was always more interesting when a hamburger or hot dog was involved. A few Saturdays after my third birthday he took me into Washington, DC, beyond the museums and monuments to the now-famous Ben’sChiliBowl. The neighborhood around it was burnt and scarred from riots in the wake of the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; yet, Ben’s was virtually untouched by the violence, though it had remained open around-the-clock for many days as a place of respite and safety.
"The measure of a man, he said, was found in how we treat people who have the least in common with us."
An aging white man and his blue-eyed grandson seemed out of place, but we were not unwelcome. My grandfather asked me to remember the kindness and friendliness of the Black workers and customers there whenever I might hear negative remarks about Black people from white neighbors and friends. The measure of a man, he said, was found in how we treat people who have the least in common with us.
While I was in junior high school, I gained a new mentor in a city-wide school administrator who became a confidant and friend as much as an academic guru for almost a decade until his untimely passing. Bill came from a family of means and had an impressive private education. Still, he was driven in return to work to improve science and math education in public schools and to create opportunities for capable students to accelerate beyond their grade level. During the spring before my last year of high school, Bill accepted an opportunity to work in Southeast Asia on science and math school programs at a national level. While I saw Bill only once more after he left for The Philippines, we kept a long and faithful friendship through my undergraduate career and first twenty brain surgeries, as well as his departure from Manila for a Japanese monastery, a move to a Hawaiian Buddhist community, and his eventual marriage to a woman art dealer that took him to California.
Bill was a hemophiliac; and like so many of his generation of hemophiliacs, his death in October 1985 was due to HIV. Following my coming-out to him in early 1984 in advance of telling my family, Bill wrote me that he had contracted hepatitis, as if to not burden me with knowledge of his actual illness while I was facing the loss of many other friends. He also warned me in the letter with his “white lie” just as I was preparing to graduate from university - -I still have Bill’s letters --“Don’t get caught up in the arms race for ‘credentials’, the urge to tack more abbreviations are your name, unless you’re willing to perform difficult work on behalf of others with more needs than you. The measure of a man isn’t in monuments or wealth, it’s his devotion to making life better for others without any recognition at all.”
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. - Lao Tzu.