It Ain’t All Bad
One of the most disturbing birthday cards I’ve ever seen was the one my father sent to his brother when they were both in their late-seventies. The outside depicted a caricature of a mortician and the phrase “Enjoy Your Birthday.” The sentiment inside was, “It May Be Your Last.” I could see it as dark humor; I could see it as the ultimate expression of sibling rivalry. But no matter how I saw it, I thought it was a terrible card to send. Birthdays are intended to be happy celebrations, not reminders of death.
Yet, most of us during the procession of birthdays do recognize a point when we definitely have more birthdays behind us than ahead of us. I have to confess that I reached that tipping point a long time ago. And, while I totally subscribe to Tallulah Bankhead’s observation, “aging ain’t for sissies,” the truth is—aging ain’t all bad, either.
I get out of bed with the same aches and pains every senior has. But I do get out of bed. And for that I’m grateful. I take particular pleasure when going through TSA screening, setting off enough bells to make fellow travelers think a terrorist attack is emminent. As the male screener wands my metal knees and hip I whisper confidentially, “The next time I come through, I hope I’ll have a steel prick. Then I’ll go on television as the Bionic Grandpa.” Depending on the mood of the screener and how many hours he’s been on duty, I get a smile, a smirk, or a scowl.
But one of the great advantages of the aging process is the opportunity to enjoy the gift of perspective—the ability to look back. When I read in the New York Times about the legalization of same-sex marriage in Argentina and see the smiling face of Alejandro Vanelli, 61, one of the first to marry under the new Argentine law, I read with awe and wonder at how fast and far gay rights, i.e. equal rights, have progressed. But I also recall that the New York Times until the late fifties never printed the term homosexual. Instead, they used code words such as perversion, depravity, degeneracy—to describe homosexuals.
For a significant portion of my adult life I was in a traditional marriage to a straight woman. If I wanted a family, there was no other choice. Now, the definition of marriage, and of family, is becoming more inclusive. Countries like South Africa, Spain, Canada, Holland and Argentina are leading the way. Sometimes I wonder, would I have made the same choices if I’d come of age in a more recent generation? I don’t have an answer. I don’t need an answer. But I’m grateful to have lived long enough to see the change and be able to ask the question.
When I was a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania in the fifties, I knew no one in my class, or in the med school, or on the faculty, who was homosexual. The struggle of trying to figure out who I was, I endured alone. There was a bar in downtown Philadelphia for men only. Finally, in my personal warfare of lust versus logic, lust won out. I mustered the courage to go there.
Fifteen minutes later I left. The place was dark, seedy, and no one spoke to me.
Now I realize the other men in the bar may have been as fearful and confused as I was. But at the time I thought, if this is what being homosexual means, I should head to the Ben Franklin bridge and test the waters of the Delaware. So it was with special delight I read the summer edition of Penn Medicine, the alumni publication for graduates and friends of the University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine.
It featured a column, “Fostering a Safe Haven,” which described the third annual symposium of LGBTPM+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People in Medicine Plus). The forum dealt with the “medical coming out stories” of LGBT physicians and with the issues of how open to be about sexuality while developing a career in medicine.
LGBTPM+ was founded at the School of Medicine in 2007 at the instigation of Emma E. Furth, M.D., professor of pathology and laboratory medicine. Furth, who chaired the Medical Faculty Senate in 2009-2010, says, “It was obvious over time that the whole issue of being comfortable and visible in the LGBT population wasn’t there.” She credits Arthur H. Rubenstein, M.B., B.Ch, Dean of the Medical School, for the “moral support, funding, and visibility,” he’s given to the group. Furth says that she still sees “subtle, behind-the-door discrimination” in some academic settings. “But Penn,” she says, “is amazing and very supportive.”
That’s good news. It wasn’t always so. It was only in the mid-sixties that Dr. John Fryer was dismissed from his psychiatric residency at Penn on the suspicion he might have been homosexual. Fryer later testified at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting in 1972 disguised as Dr. Anonymous. His testimony catalyzed the APA to remove homosexuality as a disease in their next edition of the DSM, the Diagnostic Standards for Treatment.
That’s why I say, “Aging ain’t all bad.” Sure, the passage of time is accompanied by aches and anguish, by pains and pitfalls. But it also gives us the opportunity to see change in perspective—and a lot of it is for the better.
John Siegfried, a former Rehoboth resident, lives in Ft. Lauderdale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.