A woman told me yesterday of her journey to see her grandchildren in Colorado. I asked how the time had been. Immediately she opened the trove of pictures on her phone and showed me an iconic image.
It was a little girl smiling over a birthday cake all lit with candles. Five of them. The firelight uplit her face so that she looked, herself, incandescent. I had not seen such an image of joy in I don’t know how long.
When the party was over, her grandmother told me, and everything had been cleaned up and the guests had gone home, it was time for bed. “As I tucked her in,” the grandmother told me, “she took my hand and said, ‘Am I still five?’” Yes, the grandmother assured her, she was still five and would be for a whole year.
Am I still five?
I keep hearing that question, imagining the mind and heart of the questioner. The celebration had been so moving, so rapturous, the child had lost all track of time. For all she knew she had been cavorting with the angels, which was now possible for a real five year-old. But when the angels had all gone home or to bed, she wondered if it hadn’t all been, just perhaps, a dream. She was not sure that the gift of this fete in her honor was durable. Did it persist even after the party was over? Was she still five?
Our birthday fantasies are rather just the opposite. You hope that, after the big party for your fortieth, you might go to bed and wake up and it was all a dream. You are not still forty.
As you hear that story, see that photograph of the five candles lighting the cake and the face of the child, make your own wish. Wish that you could once again find some rapture that would take you out of time and slip you into the eternal for just a shining moment. Wish that you could rejoice in the gift of each new year, that your hope would not be somehow to lose your years, but to hold onto them.
You can do that. I can do that. I know because Madeleine L’Engle said, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”