Today I become 60.
It’s the first birthday since Betty died, but I’ve got my memories. Betty’s 60th birthday was fun. We had a bunch of women over and we all drew, painted and pasted papers that were then put up on a large painting that Betty had started. Not everyone there was an artist, in fact most weren’t, and some women who wanted to be there couldn’t make it but were represented on the final painting. We all felt like we were back in art class in grade school, it was just fun. Betty and I finished off the painting when they left, and I still have it.
My own special birthday is much simpler, because while Betty was an extrovert, I’m an introvert— not shy, but other people drain me of energy if I spend too much time with a crowd. So I’m spending a little time with my brother, then Tucker and I are going to one of my best friends’ house to hang out with her and her husband and eat Thai food. Once home again, I’ll probably watch TV and do some work for the second part of my day.
Work? Yeah, I usually work late at night for several hours— I’m writing a book about Betty. There! I’ve said it to all of you, not just a few friends. Now I’ve got to follow through, right? I actually started the book last summer, before Betty died unexpectedly. One time when I was writing, Betty came into my office, saw a photo of her mother from the 1920s and asked me what I was doing with it. I told her that I started this book about her, and would put the photo of her mother in it. (It was the second time I told her about the book.) Her response? “What’s so special about me?” I rattled off a few things, such as she was the first woman graduate from Gallaudet to get a doctoral degree; the “mother” of De’VIA, Deaf View Image Art, a genre where the artist intentionally expresses their deaf experience; co-founder of Spectrum, Focus on Deaf Artists, an artist’s colony in Texas; first deaf executive director of DCARA, Deaf Counseling, Advocacy and Referral Agency in Oakland, CA; first deaf counselor for deaf recovering alcoholics and substance abusers— and that’s only what I could remember immediately. Her response was a simple “Oh, wow.” Then she turned and left. It broke my heart to see her lose part of her identity to the slow erosion of her memory.
The actress Jane Fonda, in her recent book entitled Prime Time, calls the 60s the beginning of the third act of your life. I like that. Despite the fact that I’m not an actress, I can relate to that image. The first third of your life, birth to 30, is the time of growing and discovery, and making a lot of mistakes trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do with yourself. Then from 30 to 60, the second act, is traditionally when we are most productive, and the third act, age 60 and beyond, is leisure and decline. She challenges us change the view of aging to also be a time of working and learning and being productive— because we want to.
For me, the first act is where I grew up hard of hearing and discovered American Sign Language and deaf people and began to gain my Deaf identity. My second act is when I fell in love with Betty at age 33, and also when I worked at Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), Gallaudet University, then National Association of the Deaf (NAD)— three of the most prominent organizations in the Deaf World, full of mostly good and a few bad experiences and a lot of learning and growing.
Now I enter my third act. I’m sad that Betty’s not here for my 60th birthday, and that she won’t see any of my Act III. But her memory, her love, and her energy are still powering me.
I’ve often told people that to an artist there’s no such thing as “retire.” Generally, creative people work their entire lives because they want to. I’m working on making my Act III as creative, productive, and wise as I can. That’s the best way I can honor Betty’s memory, by becoming even more of what she helped me become, and what she loved about me.