How should we mark our 60th birthdays, I ask my friend. For years, she and I have planned a joint celebration. My birthday is later this week; hers in March. We met during the first week of university, both 17, the youngest students of our intake. Our lives intertwined. We fell in love with lovely men; our husbands became close, our families, too. We have spent many evenings and weekends and holidays together, often with another friend, Sara. One idea for our 60th involved a trip to Mexico with Sara.
Sara died four years ago; my husband, the musician Andy Gill, is not yet 12 months dead. The anniversary of his death, far more significant than any birthday, falls on 1 February. Even without the wider context of the pandemic, I doubt I’d be in party mood. Yet I do want to observe the joint birthdays and, yes, to rejoice in them. In marking such milestones, we acknowledge that life is finite and that each stage has a value. We pay tribute to experience, accrued and shared. We celebrate life itself.
This past year of grief, my own and the world’s, has brought home to me how routinely we muddy these rites by flinching from age and death. The impulse that sees women greet new decades by contorting themselves into tight, bright dresses and tighter, brighter smiles is a natural response to a culture that insists a female’s greatest worth lies in her ability to turn heads.
When sexism meets ageism, it becomes more potent still. Without the vivid colours, would we be visible at all? The ease with which older women living in pension poverty are overlooked by policymakers suggests not. The disregard for the elderly that saw Covid scythe through care homes demonstrates that age, unlike the pandemic, can be a leveller. Old men, too, are diminished and disrespected unless they have the money or social capital to resist their obsolescence.
No wonder we seek to deny age rather than welcoming it. As for death, our fears are instinctive, yet the more we turn away, the greater its power to terrorise. Like the monster in a horror film, it is scariest when unseen, a shadow flitting across a wall. Holding Andy’s hand as he died, stroking his beautiful face, watching him grow still and pale, I lost any residual fears of my own mortality. This much still scares me: pain – whether physical or the pain of loss; waste – of time, of opportunities, of resources. Some pain is unavoidable. Waste is not.
Not one of us knows how much life we have left or can control the external forces that shape our existence, but within these parameters we are able to make smaller choices. For me, the events of the past year have made these choices clearer. I choose optimism: the optimism of working for political and social change, the optimism of sitting down to write, the optimism of looking forward to days filled with light and laughter. Locked down and living alone for the first time in 30 years, I choose love, embracing the things I cannot touch, the living and the lovely dead.
I choose over the coming days to celebrate my birthday. I will surely dance, clumsily and on my own. I started dancing last year whenever the companies and institutions I contacted as part of the probate process following Andy’s death left me hanging on the phone, listening to holding music. A friend, entertained by a video I made of one of these dances, introduced me to Joe Tracini’s Twitter feed. The actor, comedian and mental health campaigner regularly posts hilarious dance tutorials. I have amused myself by attempting to copy his routines.
Pop star-turned-vicar-and-broadcaster Reverend Richard Coles recently passed on advice he was given after the death of his partner David, a year before Andy. The thing about early widowhood, he said, is that everybody will be nicer to you than they were before or will be in future. With that in mind and since people are already asking what I want for my birthday, I intend to leverage the intersection of widowhood and big six oh to push for donations for two organisations I co-founded and passionately support, the Women’s Equality Party and Primadonna Festival.
For my birthday itself, I will Zoom with my family, including my mother Anne Mayer Bird, herself widowed 41 days before me and busily disproving the idea that people of her age are spent and unproductive. In co-writing a book with me, she has just become, at 87, a first-time published author.
There will be a birthday meal, too, if circumstances permit, with my friend and her family – my bubble. This won’t be on the scale of the festivities she and I once envisaged. Andy and Sara will be there in spirit only. Yet they will be there, and we who remain have much to celebrate. How rich is life that sends us such love, relationships textured and tempered over decades? How can we fail to appreciate the present or look forward with hope?
Catherine Mayer’s new book, ‘Good Grief: Embracing Life at a Time of Death’, co-written with her mother Anne Mayer Bird, is out now (HQ, £16.99)