In case you missed the declaration of what really ought to be a national observance, I’m turning fifty this year.
This still seems a little incredible to me, despite the fact that I’ve accumulated several years of doing things (been married 20 years, started teaching 29 years ago, have a 17-year-old and an almost-fifteen-year-old, lived in my house for 20 years). These things should add up to me being 50, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that I’m not still a teenager myself. I look at Chris and think, “That’s my son? How can he be seventeen? I was just seventeen, like, two weeks ago!”
Despite this, I’m not traumatized by turning 50. On the one hand it feels incredible and on the other hand it feels perfectly natural, like it’s exactly the thing you should be doing after having been alive for 49 years. Why would people try to resist such a natural process?
While turning 50 is not something to be fought or resisted, it does seem like a natural occasion for thought and reflection. I could have posted this in January at the turn of the year, or I could wait till September and post it when my actual birthday rolls around … but instead, I’m posting it on this cold February day, because it’s what’s on my mind today.
Jamie was in his early 40s when he died; Linda had just turned 50. Neither of them ever had the luxury of getting to whine and moan about middle age and getting older. Both of them left partners they loved, young children they had hoped to raise to maturity, and dreams they still wanted to fulfill. Neither of them got to experience their 50s, not to mention their 60s, 70s, or 80s. They both died of cancer: one of a type that we knew from the start had a bad prognosis, the other from a type that was supposed to be easily treatable. Because life is just so brutally unpredictable and bloody unfair.
Terrible things happen to lovely people, and I don’t pretend to know why. I do know that I will not turn 50 without thinking of Jamie and of Linda, and of the things they never got to do, see and experience.
I know that in my 50s I will probably lose more friends of my own generation, and I will be angry all over again at the unfairness of it.
I know there’s a chance I could be one of the people who dies in my 50s, because, see above about life being unfair and unpredictable.
I can’t promise that I will never complain about gray hair, aching joints, wrinkles, menopause or any of the other inconveniences I’m sure I will encounter in my 50s. But I can promise you that every time I do complain, I will stop myself short and be grateful I am getting the chance to experience those things.
I can’t promise that I will live every moment of my 50s “to the fullest.” I will certainly try; I try to live my life that way anyway, but I’m keenly aware that there will be days when the home/work/home routine is a boring slog, and I’m frustrated, and I may fall into bed without expressing deep gratitude for the wonder of life. But I do promise that at least once a week I will say to God and the Universe — “This is amazing! Thank you for the fact that I’m still here to experience it all!”
I can’t promise to always be fearless, because there are things worth being afraid of. But I promise to try to let fear hold me back less, to take more risks and try more things, even if they involve terrifying activities like picking up the phone to talk to people. There are things I want to get done in the year I turn 50, and in the years that follow, that will require moderate doses of courage. I don’t want to leave those things undone, because I am so thankful I am still here to do them. So I will try to be brave, when I need to be brave.
I can’t promise that I will always eat right, exercise enough, and make all the healthy choices. But I do want to honour the memory of my friends whose lives were too short by taking the best care I can of this body that, amazingly, still works really really well. I won’t succumb to the illusion that if I do all the right things, I can guarantee my own safety, because I know how wrong that is. But I also won’t throw my hands up in despair and say, “Oh well, I’m getting old, might as well slide downhill.” Unless I am on a toboggan or at the top of a waterslide, in which case I will certainly surrender to the urge to slide downhill.
I will continue going on toboggans and waterslides.
To be honest: I am excited that (if all goes well for the next seven months) I will get to turn 50. I recognize that a lot of the reason I’m so sanguine about this milestone is that I have a lot of the things in my life that I wanted to have when I turned 50: good health, a husband who is my best friend and makes me laugh; two great kids who haven’t gotten into any major trouble so far; a job I thoroughly enjoy. I recognize that a lot of people’s sadness and frustration over reaching midlife stems from the fact that they didn’t get things they desperately wanted. I promise to try to remember that, to be compassionate and less judgemental, when I hear people express fear or regret about turning 50.
Because I lost two dear friends far too soon, I don’t want to take for granted the many friends I still have. I want to show them how grateful I am for their presence in my life.
Mostly, for my fiftieth year and beyond, I want to do what I always try to do anyway: to be present. To be here now.
Because I’m so, so grateful that I am here now.