On Turning Sixty by Jack Shea

Jack Shea celebrating 60th birthday at Sarnelli House

Last summer I began to plan for my 60th birthday. If I did not, the party animal of the house, my wife Maggie, would do the planning for me. And I wanted no part of a party with the well wishers telling me how great it is to be turning 60. I know better. No more kidding myself, middle age is a thing of the past and my frequent trips to the gym and to the bathroom reinforce the knowledge that my body is starting to fall apart.

After careful thought, I narrowed the options of where I should spend my birthday, to the west coast of Ireland and Thailand. Both have their attractions. I could see myself in Ireland, sitting in a pub, watching the storms roll in from the Atlantic, while sipping pints of Guinness. The perfect place to review a litany of my life and to sink into a pit of nostalgia and melancholy. Thailand would be an entirely different matter. My older brother, Michael, has lived there for 35 years and, while he has made many trips home, I have never traveled to see him or his life’s work as a Catholic missionary.

Unable to decide a course of action, I shuffled off to the computer and fired off an email outlining my thoughts to Michael. His response was overwhelming. “Buy your tickets, we will have a great time, the weather in January is perfect, and we will travel all over the country.” Shortly thereafter, I contacted my younger brother. Would you like to join us? Would he ever! Kevin even had a sack full of frequent flier miles to help reduce the airfare cost.

Time flew and soon Maggie was taking me to the airport, sad to see me leave, happy for me that I would be with both my brothers for the first time, and, more than a little relieved she would not have to listen to my whining and carping about turning 60. Thirty hours later I arrived in Bangkok where we rendezvoused and then venture off into the country. After several days of sightseeing, shopping, visiting magnificent Buddhist temples, and meeting many of Michael’s friends, we traveled to the northeast section of the country, to a small village called Viengkhuk. Here is where he has made his home, and where we would stay for several days.

Michael is the pastor for three small rural parishes. He also built and operates two orphanages. They are populated with children from six months to sixteen years of age. Some are true orphans, families have abandoned others. Some were sexually abused, one at age three. A staff member rescued two just before they were to be sold into prostitution. All too many are HIV positive. They are cared for by a staff of housemothers and nurses plus volunteers from as far away as France, Canada, and the States.

Villagers, police, and mothers dying of AIDS, all bring children to the orphanages. They need to be deloused, wormed, and fed nourishing meals. All get medical checkups and are treated for a wide variety of illness. Medication for AIDS, however is not available.

When we arrived, it seemed there were kids everywhere. Playing popping in and out of doors, and running over to check out the new arrivals. Many would greet us in Thai fashion, bowing with their hands folded. A big smile or giggle would follow and then they would be off.

I have never seen a happier group of children in my life. They have found an oasis that provides security and safety. Neat, scrubbed, and watched over by the staff, they behave as a large family offering each other companionship and support. School is valued. And each morning, a group is lined up in their uniforms, ready to be escorted across the busy road to school. One afternoon, Kevin and I hosted a picnic with soda, cookies, and chips. Our popularity was guaranteed from that time forward. The night before we returned to Bangkok, the staff threw a barbeque for us. We handed out toys that Maggie had collected and sent with me. All had a great time. Kids played, a few danced traditional Thai dance, and we all ate like kings. Soon we were saying our goodbyes to the children and staff. It was hard leaving, knowing that I would not see them again.

Back in Bangkok, we did more sightseeing and relaxed in Thailand’s wonderful weather. One night, Michael took us to his favorite restaurant. No rice that night. The menu listed imported beef, sold by the gram! I ordered New Zealand lamp chops, smothered in bleu cheese and washed it down with a delicious red wine. Later, when I reached for the check, Kevin grabbed it. “You are not buying on your birthday.” It wasn’t that I had totally forgotten, just that it did not seem as important anymore. What was? Two small boys wanting their pictures taken, jabbering away trying to tell me God knows what. Later running over to show me the candy my brother gave them. A little girl dying all alone in a hospital in Bangkok, her eyes staring blankly at me as I walked past. The many people who welcomed us and helped make our visit so pleasant. Most of all, I’ll remember the children, living in the inexhaustible optimism of youth, living for the moment, trying to teach an old man the value of life.

I believe that when a person dies, the only thing they take into the hereafter is their good deeds. All else, friends, stuff, dreams, and aspirations are left behind. When Michael leaves this world his ghost will approach the kingdom of Heaven leading the ghost of the little children. And, the gates of Heaven will open, the drawbridge will fall, and Louis Armstrong will be playing: “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

As for me? When my time comes, I hope someone leaves a side door unlocked.


Jack Shea

*Jack Shea died in 2005. This story was written by him in 2001.

Go Back