Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age
When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave
And senorita play guitar, play it just for you
My rosary has broken and my beads have all slipped through . . .
Yes I’ll sit with you and talk let your eyes relive again
I know my vintage prayers would be very much the same
And Magdelena plays the organ, plays it just for you
Your choral lamp that burns so low when you are passing through
And the future you’re giving me holds nothing for a gunSongwriters: Bernie Taupin, Elton John
I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on
This song was on Elton’s John second album–called simply “Elton John”–and it was released in 1970 when I was too young to know who he was. Three years later I would see him live in the University of Tennessee’s old (torn down in the last few years) basketball and events arena, Stokely Athletic Center.
Sadly Elton and I did not have a good first brush with one another. I did not really know the senior who asked me, a sophomore, to go with him to the Elton John concert in the Spring of 1973. I was hopelessly out of my sheltered element at the concert, was not familiar with the bulk of Elton John’s music, and when pot and cigarette smoke suffused the arena, felt so ill I’m sure I staggered to the car.
Later that year, in the fall of 1973 ( my junior year), a new kid from New Jersey joined us at our small-town city, Tennessee junior/senior high school. He was a fish out of water in many ways and did not realize that I was considered a hopeless “brain” who wouldn’t “put out”, and thus had no boy friend or dates, aside from the abortive Elton John concert effort.
Through the usual high school channels–a mutual friend laying the groundwork with the standard query, “Steve likes you. Would you go out with him?”–Steve and I started dating. In the language of our time, we were going steady because he gave me his New Jersey high school class ring to wear with tape around the back to keep it on my finger (!). And it was Steve who truly introduced me to Elton John’s work and the album that contained the song, “Sixty Years On”.
I am now 60 years (and some change) on, and today is my birthday. I suppose more accurately we should say it is the anniversary of my birth. When I was born it was the last gasp of the 1950s, just before the 1960s changed everything with the Beatles, the Vietnam War, and the resulting peace movement. Not that I noticed because I was just a tiny girl whose parents neither listened to the music of the ’60s nor were politically active. The only sign of politics in our household was that Daddy would just say he was a Nixon man. Though he was a die-hard Republican, Daddy had bought a picture book about the Kennedy assassination and JFK’s funeral. So even though Daddy considered himself a strong supporter of President Nixon, he must have found President Kennedy’s assassination to be enough of a noteworthy event to add the Kennedy assassination picture book to our home. He would show it to me often. Perhaps there is just something about death, or even a brush with death, that focuses the attention.
Today, 60 years from the 1960s, my beloved only sister has been diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer. Daddy died three years ago in December 2016; Mama had a small stroke last year that still allows her to work at the age of 83 (a feat unto itself); and now my sister has cancer that has metastisized and spread. Her attitude is excellent, but her chemotherapy treatments are brutal.
And as my sister fights for her life against this unseen enemy, it is the Christmas season, for me the born-a-week-before-Christmas baby, my parents first child. I have always felt a special affinity to the holiday season because it is my birthday season as well. Just 15 months after I came into the world, my sister Lisa was born so neither my sister nor I recall a time that the other was not there. Daddy’s girls. He was so proud.
As a friend of mine from high school told me today, we are essentially the same people we were when were younger. And he is right. We are born with a genetic makeup that informs our temperament, our resilience, and our predisposition to disease. This genetic makeup then interacts in a delicate dance with the nurturing we receive or do not receive, the love we receive or do not receive, and the acceptance we receive or do not receive. This amalgamation defines us–and yet it does not. We are the same people we were when we are young, but we have the additional experiences of life that attach to us like barnacles. We drag these burdens behind us like a fisherman’s weighty net. If we are lucky we forget enough of the most cruel moments of life so we can wrest ourselves free and fly. Into the joys, into the laughter, into the risks of loving, into the risk of falling, into the infinite possibilties of living passionately.
In many respects, I do feel as I did when I was young. But there are many additional joys and stresses to be added to that core person that was me, 60 years on. There are the smiles of my grandchildren who I love unconditionally and who love me without question or reserve. The laughter we share. The unwritten adoration and delight we find in each other. Daddy is gone in my physical world which is a profound loss. Yet he remains close to me as I pray to him for strength and remember what he would say to me in difficult moments or happy situations. How he trusted me to do that right thing, and how very much he loved me–exactly as I am.
Beyond all these blessings, however, my sister’s serious illness has shaken me to my foundation. I cannot say I will ever be the same person I was before her illness–for just the terror of having to consider life without her. But, as luck would have it, my sister has a week off from chemo this week, and it is the week her beautiful son Zach is visiting us from Portland, Oregon. Last Sunday night, Zach, Lisa’s husband Rocky, Lisa and I walked around Lisa’s beautiful South Knoxville neighborhood. My sister and I walked arms around each other, looking at the Christmas lights at dusk and after dark. She knew who lived in every home we past, and she knew the history of each one.
It was a wonderful early Christmas gift last Sunday to have time with my sister. And tonight, for my birthday, we are having take-out pizza at her house. Sixty years on I am simply grateful for my sister’s presence in my life. We were best friends in high school, and being with her tonight is my most precious birthday present ever. Material gifts are lovely, and I have honored gift-giving my entire life, but time with my sister, just looking at her dear face, is all the gift I need this birthday or this Christmas.
May Daddy’s love give me the strength to go forward, to be there for my dear sister who turns 60 in March. May she be pain-free and enjoy that birthday–my dear, dear, dear, dear sister.
~ Anna – 12/18/2019