More than 20 years ago (gulp!), I started writing this column as I was about to turn the magical mid-life age of 50. I followed up that first Rafu column by marking every five years with a piece on birthdays. Since turning 70, I realized that this tradition only served to call attention to my senescence, so I stopped what I came to recognize as too self-absorbed for my own good. After all, for someone who always believed what Mark Twain said, that “Age is a function of mind over matter,” and “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” did I really want to confront my mortality?

I guess the gods answered that question by giving me COVID a few days before my birthday last week. Without sounding too melodramatic, thoughts of over a million deaths, not to mention painful illnesses, suddenly converged in my foggy brain.

With the huge and ongoing concerns surrounding this horrific virus, I had been determined not to be one of its victims. I did all the right things: I got both boosters, I N95 masked, I avoided crowds (okay, so I didn’t always dine outside at restaurants, especially as it got colder).  

I held myself up as one of the smart ones who knew exactly how to escape the deadly disease, but when the sore throat and congestion symptoms started to appear, all I could think of was “Why me?” The self-pity soon turned to embarrassment when I realized I had to inform all those I’d exposed that I had tested positive. I thought of the people I knew who constantly wore their masks, even when outdoors, and those who still didn’t eat at indoor restaurants. That’s when I began to feel stupidly careless and a little ashamed.

Fortunately, my COVID symptoms were mild enough not to be hospitalized (as the literature says someone my age should consider), but bad enough that sleeping, eating and moving took more effort than I was willing to make. I refused going to the doctor because of the exertion it required, but I’ve since learned that there are drugs that might’ve eased some of the symptoms. Nighttime was worst because that’s when the headaches and severe congestion seemed to magnify as I counted the minutes that turned into hours the agony would last.

During my better moments, I was able to stream some pretty terrible TV programs, some of which I wouldn’t be caught dead (pun intended) watching if I were well. I was only able to get through one season of “Barry” without wanting to kill the hired killer myself. Programs about death, of which there are too many to mention, oddly became an unintentional preoccupation even though there was no way I could get through all 21 episodes of “The Staircase” to find out if Michael Peterson really did kill his wife — whether in Amazon Prime real life or in HBO Max fiction. I guess I really didn’t care.

When not in a TV-induced coma while going from couch to bed and trying hard to stay completely isolated, I had plenty of time to think about how COVID affected my self-image, not to mention my views on life and birthdays. I used to fool myself into thinking that birthdays were just another inconsequential day of the year, but as that day approached in my COVID stupor, I began to realize that birthdays were much more important than I pretended they weren’t.

When one of my dearest friends, Mary Karatsu, passed away on my birthday four years ago, I chalked it up to some sort of synchronicity caused by our obvious spiritual alignment, that perhaps she chose to die on my birthday to acknowledge our important (though admittedly my own self-obsessed) friendship. Even at her funeral, I kept expecting her to rise up to sing “Happy Birthday” to me amidst the huge church filled with hundreds of her close friends. Ah yes, the ego plays strange and powerful tricks.

I now realize I chose to ignore what I was really feeling, i.e., incredible pain that still haunts me when I think of the loss of Mary’s gallant spirit. I downplayed the power of that synchronous moment of birth and death to hide my sadness. I also began to acknowledge that birthdays are a reminder that we are all traipsing slowly but absolutely toward the inevitable destination of death.

Lest I leave with that morbid thought, my brush with COVID also helped me come to some positive realizations, too. Now that I’m completely recovered and feeling good again, I appreciate that life has become more precious than ever. Little things that seemed to be important to me in the past seem less so now. Some of the wonderful (still unfinished) projects I’ve been working on seem to have taken on new depth and meaning.

It’s hard to explain, but I now plan to observe all my birthdays knowing that since the final destination is getting closer and closer, there’s no time like the present to celebrate the journey.


Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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