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WOSTER: Not sure what to do with this present

The last poem written by my favorite poet among writers of the Romantic Period is titled "On this day I complete my 36th year.''

Lord Byron wrote the piece in January of 1824. He was in Greece at the time, trying to join the fight for that nation's independence from the Ottoman Empire. He died of a fever, not battle wounds, three months later.

Byron was the last of three young, creative poets of the Romantic Period. Percy Shelley died before his 30th birthday. John Keats was not quite 26 when he died.

As a college student with an English minor, I loved the way that trio of poets used language to create images and move the hearts of readers. I was drawn, too, probably, to the idea of their early deaths. They had such a short time to use their immense talents. Each of them, in some writings, seemed to be aware of that.

I was, as I said, in college when I read deeply into those poets. I would have been barely 20 years old. From that perspective, Byron seemed a mature adult by the time of his final poem at age 36.

Today, I observe my 75th birthday, and I'm not quite sure what to do with that.

In his last poem, Byron said, "My days are in the yellow leaf; the flowers and fruits of love are gone; the worm, the canker and the grief are mine alone.''

As an old farm boy, I know how the broad, green leaves of a stand of corn turn yellow and brittle as August turns to September and each day is shorter than the one that came before. Byron's image makes sense from that perspective. Yet, if his days were in the yellow leaf at 36, what does that make my days at 75? Ready to be chopped, trucked home and packed in a silage pile?

When I was taking graduate classes in 1967, my roommate, Mike, bought a vinyl album, Frank Sinatra's "September of My Years.'' It was filled with songs about aging and the passing of time, songs such as "Last Night When We Were Young,'' and "Hello, Young Lovers.'' It was the singer's way of contemplating his advancing age. Mike and I listened to that album until the grooves wore flat. Sinatra recorded it when he was approaching 50.

At 75, obviously, I'm much nearer the end than the beginning. My dad died at 56, my mom at 84. Even if I live to her age, I'm only nine years away. And the average life expectancy for a man in this country is several years less than that, so who knows?

That's the point, I suppose. I don't know. I can look ahead, calculate odds and averages and get a general answer for the general population. But nothing at all gives me an answer for me. That answer will be unveiled at a time not of my choosing.

Don't get the idea that I sit around pondering the end. I've done that sometimes when birthdays near, especially as I've aged. But I don't do it routinely. I like to remember the play "Godspell,'' with the line, recited in a Jimmy Durante-style voice, "Remember, if the householder had known what time the burglar was coming, he would have stayed awake all night.''

Well, in recent years I've found that I have more trouble sleeping through the night. It's a factor of age (as are so many things at this stage of life), not worry about whether the time is near. While I'm awake at night, I don't think of my death. I think of the world my kids and grandkids will have. I worry for them, not for me.

Quite by chance last evening, I found this bit of homespun wisdom: "Birthdays are good for your health. Studies show those who have more birthdays live longer.'' It made me laugh, and laughter is a good thing, even a great thing.

Lord Byron knew that. Long before Reader's Digest figured it out, Byron said, "Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.''

At my age, I need all the medicine I can get.