This is forty-three

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I’m good at panicking. A born natural. I’d been panicking long before Lena Dunham ever thought to pitch twentysomething angst as a TV series.

In 1976, I’d been trapped between my grandparents in the front seat of their Chevy Nova, watching my kindergarten graduation corsage wilt in the city’s June humidity, and in the sticky, leather-upholstered closeness. “Next year — first grade!” my grandfather loudly announced, his arm pressing too tightly around my yellow cap-sleeved shoulder. I was crestfallen. I’d have to get older? I’d have to keep doing this? Where was this all heading, exactly?

On the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday, I lay on the cheap platform bed I bought on Third Avenue with my boyfriend, and panicked again. I yelled to our poorly patched bedroom ceiling and my snoring boyfriend  that I was halfway to thirty. Dear God. Thirty. Because this is what you do in your twenties. You think such lamentations give the illusion of maturity, and deem you worthy of expensive shoes and face creams.  At that age, you mostly imagine your problems.

He slurred from the early stages of sleep, “No, you’re not, babe. You’re halfway to fifty.” And he rolled over, and went back to sleep. Easily.

The other night, that boyfriend and I snuggled in our bed. We own a more comfortable one now, with an upholstered headboard and a queen-sized mattress and soft sheets that I spray with lavender water to help us both sleep — because we no longer need to imagine problems. They sleep beside us these days, kicking and poking at our backs. We’re married now, both forty-three — although he never remembers how old he is, and asks me at parties to remind him, when queried.

We lay in bed, and I mindlessly slid my bare right leg over his, and talked into his cotton-shirted collarbone. He smelled good, like clean soap and salt. Beside him, I know all the hollows, the familiar places, the bones. This is so much of why I don’t want to get older, to age, to pass on. I don’t want to leave this. I don’t want my life with him to end. At all.

“Hey, babe? Remember when I told you the night before I turned twenty-five that I was terrified of being halfway to thirty?”

“Yeah…”

“And you told me I was really halfway to fifty, and went back to sleep?”

“Yeah…”

And then I smacked him. Mostly playfully.

Summer’s making its way back into our lives — which means the arrival of so many luscious and lazy days, and that another August birthday is out there for me, hovering. I’ll turn forty-four on one of those dog days. Well on my way to fifty. Which is more than fine, because the alternative of not reaching these ages? Not too promising.

The writer Lindsay Mead recently wrote on her blog — “A Design So Vast” — that she wanted to take some time to stop and write about the middle of her life, to acknowledge who she is, what she’s become, and what she needs to accept that she will no longer be. Before I reach my forty-fourth birthday, and before the kids are out of school and interrupting me constantly wtih requests for ice pops and glue and money for gum, I decided to stop the churning pistons of Monday morning, and opt to be here instead today, and think about things, and write, with dishes still in the sink and hair unwashed.

So this is forty-three.

Forty-three is not my mother’s forty-three. I’m much younger at this age than I thought I’d be. I didn’t know that so many questions would remain unanswered, that I’d still feel so lost and alone and vulnerable at times, so giddy and ridiculous at others. I didn’t know how much I’d still want my life, how fiercely I’d fight, how alive I’d still feel. I didn’t know I’d be this brave.

Forty-three is being told by the hair stylist that there isn’t a brown hair left on my head. Not one. And that dyeing my eyebrows is no longer helpful.

Forty-three is freeing myself from trends and draping my body in the luxury of whatever I fucking well please. Realizing that skinny jeans don’t flatter me, no matter what that Charla Krupp says, and filling my drawers with bootcut jeans instead. Choosing pointed toe over round toe every time. Wearing red, never yellow. Because now, I know.

Forty-three is realizing that high school has never ended for some people — God, kindergarten has never ended for some people. We are all still such little children.

Forty-three is finding my voice — in my life and in my writing. No longer fearing so much what others think, except at times when I desperately do, and saying and writing my thoughts anyway.

Forty-three means that even though my nine year-old son tenderly clutches the spindly toes of our neighbor’s newborn niece, rests his head on mine, and whispers to me about how tiny and soft and adorable she is, I won’t be able to make him an older brother. He would have been a great one, and at small moments, the thought of it saddens me. I told my husband the other day that I wish we’d had more children. I wish I’d given him one more child. I think sometimes he wishes that as well. But forty-three means no more. And instead, focusing on the wondrous, infuriating, gorgeous, heart-stopping two children that I have.

Forty-three means crying more than I used to. No longer shutting life’s pain out or away. Mourning the little losses and the overwhelming sadness. Letting it all out, then letting it all back in — a cyclical tide, succumbing to its power and pull.

Forty-three is goodbye to stacks of parenting books and just going with my fucking gut already. Knowing my children so intimately because I’ve worked that hard and shown up that much. And fucked up profusely, at times. And we’ve all survived.

Forty-three is the shock of seeing a photograph of myself at twenty-eight, noticing the remarkable absence of smile lines and crows’ feet, the glow of my skin, the sheen of my thicker hair. Aging is not gradual. It is sudden and true in stark moments like this. Forty-three is also knowing that he loves me more now anyway, because of who I’ve been and what I’ve done and how I’ve loved him and his children. Mostly, because I love myself more now than at any other point in my life.

Forty-three isn’t about overindulging anymore, because the recovery period isn’t a price worth paying. The red meat and the wine and the sugar and the fried foods and the other — cough — items are all mostly in the rearview mirror. I see them on the side of the road every now and then, trying to hitch a ride. I usually don’t stop, but if I do, I don’t take them too far.

Forty-three is seventeen years of marriage. Coming out the other side of the early, ethereal years, and the bleary-eyed, white-knuckled, young parent ones. Working at it and realizing that such efforts are necessary and worthwhile. Earning this. Being loved — and loving — more deeply and respectfully and wholly and desperately than I once thought possible, in spite of arguments and disagreements and moments of frustration and what the fuck are you thinking? — the circling back continues, and expands and grows into something simple and overwhelming and true and present.

Forty-three is parenting a preteen who looks just like me, only far more beautiful and smart and good-natured. Who is much more confident than I was at her age. Who is still a little girl, like I am.

Forty-three is knowing that I won’t be the drummer in a kick-ass all-girl rock baand, or a book editor, or in the cast of “Saturday Night Live” or on the cover of the “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit issue or Secretary of State or Academy Award winner for Best Actress or poet laureate — and getting up and brushing my teeth and going to my life anyway. But forty-three is the year I was published in good places, and that people referred to me as a writer. Forty-three is when people responded to what I wrote, and told me how my words made them feel. Forty-three is when I finally said “I’m a writer” to other people out loud. Without hesitation. And believed it.

Forty-three might mean that I’m more than halfway through. It might be all I have. Nothing is guaranteed or promised to any of us.

Forty-four is kissed and hugged tenderly, and welcomed. Very much welcomed.

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