During my twenties, I lost my family. Not all of it, but at times, it felt like it. I was, for all intents and purposes, orphaned into the world, left to carry myself and make of my place in the world what I would. I graduated college, twice, better slow than never, and then left my home state and made a home and a life in Oregon. Adrift, but rooted, I carved out my own space in which to be.
When I turned thirty, I had achieved exactly one of the two goals I had set for myself. And I felt fine with that. And my parents floated back into my life, only days into the start of my fourth decade. Family became more than the friends I had built around me in my new life. My thirties, from the onset, felt like swimming, like a place to spread out and move, arm by arm by kick by kick. A place to move: half afloat, half pure kinesis.
Throughout the last ten years, some of them harder than any in my life before, I found old friends and gained more than one family. I waded through muck, both figurative and very very literal, until I found myself in another state, physically (but, also . . .), my life a picture of palm trees and small town urban life and big rig trucks. A life thirty year old me couldn’t see coming. Hundreds of images filed into the drawer marked ’30-39′, both obscene and divine.
And, at 40, I’m right where I should be – right. Exactly. I am fortunate enough to be immersed in love, surrounded by people who mean the world to me. To say something nebulous and unclear – I feel the most myself I think I ever have. It’s a good place.
But things are not easy. And as I get older, it seems that in some ways they get harder. At one point months ago, three women who meant something to me growing up (&still) were in the hospital and then my boyfriend’s mother was as well and I thought, this getting older thing is total bullshit. Total fucking bullshit. All of these women are still kicking, but some are in and out of the hospital regularly, a constant reminder of how fragile our bodies can be, how tenuous a hold there is between being and not.
One day, I was overwhelmed by imagining, from the perspective of one of these ‘old’ women, what it is like to bury more and more of the people you know (and love). What it must feel like to be standing, thankfully standing, but watching the life you have dwindle on one end and grow on another. More and more babies coming into your life as you feel the end of your own ramp up and taunt you – hospital tubes in the thin skin of your back hand, tubes in your nose and pulling air in, to speak, through lips lined and lined and lined with all the words you’ve said in the last eight or nine decades.
It’s as though I can feel time revving up around me. As friends of friends – some of them younger than me – have passed and others are facing chemotherapy or radiation or physical therapy to overcome unexpected and devastating injuries or illnesses, I feel acutely – painfully and with a particular core-deep low humming fear I hadn’t known yet – the numerous clichés we have for the way life can change, or leave, in a gut-busting second.
We only have today. Don’t take any moment for granted. You never know.
Blah blah blah. On and on and on.
And my mother is a long-cast shadow in my life – my own guilt about our (non)relationship heavier than anything else and yet, still, I can’t bear doing anything more about it. I can feel the weight of that shadow in my life in a whole new way, as this somewhat arbitrary ‘big’ age looms larger and larger on the horizon. When madness comes to your mother disguised as a 50th birthday present, the landmark birthdays take on new weight.
And I’m walking into forty more disillusioned with people than I have been in a long time. I have been separating, slowly and intentionally, in small and big ways, from people in my life who don’t give enough, who mean well and who I love and care for, but who make life harder, in the ways that don’t end up evening out. I am pulling away from the people in my life for whom no matter what I do, it’s never the right thing, it’s never quite the right way. Life is hard enough and sometimes it is better to just ease back a little rather than force what is seemingly unbendable.
I trust fewer people (with those things in life that are real and important and sacred) than I have in years and years. With the exception of a (large enough) core of people in my life, I feel more isolated and protective than I have since my early twenties. During the seismic shift of the last half of my thirties, I came to trust new people with a naiveté I didn’t even have in my twenties, believing that age had done for them what it has done for me. Believing that people, at this age, mean what they say and are who they appear to be and tread lightly when it comes to another person’s confidences and trust. I have been wrong a few times in ways I thought I was too old for. I have relearned old lessons.
This locked-down place in my life is not a bad thing, but it is a space to be navigated and understood and to occupy with care and intention. After a swelling of people in the last half of my thirties, it is time to pull tight the doors and care, deeply, for the ones left inside.
It is yet another cliche, but I absolutely feel I am at a crossroads. Not a fork in the road, but a mass of avenues and I have to decide which ones are navigable. Which ones will be worth the inevitable disorientation and (even temporary) strandedness that comes with human relationships. Which ones.
I thought forty might freak me out. I knew it probably would. But what I thought would bother me is the start of your face sliding into something that, eventually, you won’t be able to recognize against younger pictures of yourself. Your whole identity shifting focus. And not because of the wrinkles, more because the face I’ve come to know will start to leave and in its place will be something that becomes blurred, less distinct – myself and others less likely to be able to see, in a baby picture, how I look like me.
Turns out I was wrong. Maybe I’ll freak out about that at fifty. Probably.
What is freaking me out right now is that staticky feeling of time revving up. Of the past starting to outnumber the present, or just the possibility that it already does. I’ve lived forty years. Forty fucking years. And before I know it, it will be fifty. Then sixty. And when I’m there, will it feel like only days before that I was worried about forty? About thirty?
In the same way that 25 felt serious, like a time to take stock and assess where I was going, so does 40. What do I want? What of that do I have? What do I not want? What of that do I have?
A dear friend recently said that forty definitely feels significant. And it does. It definitely definitely does. Numbers are not, ultimately, arbitrary. Numbers stand for time, for pounds, for pressure – one is not ten is not fifty.
If nothing else, forty is a mark to measure against – the life you have against the other ones: the one you thought you would have, the life you don’t have, the life you want.
Ten years is a long time, a seeming lifetime in some ways. But it is also a span to be held in the hand. So small I can rub my fingers over it and count the ridges. See the tremors in the rings. See the lines eeking out from the corners of my eyes and count the gray hairs that are, finally, tentatively daring to grow with real abandon.
I had a forty bucket list that I started at thirty-eight. I did some of it. I didn’t get to some of it. And that’s fine. I fell in love. I spent time with the little humans who keep on growing, no matter how much I want them to stay small enough to hold and carry and cradle to sleep against my chest until my arms ache with sleep. I don’t think I’ve wasted time, even when I was wasting time.
But what do I want of forty? What will I make of it?
I want to scuba. Finally.
I want to travel. More. For real.
I want to not fuck shit up. Too badly.
When I do, I want to fix it. I want to own up.
I want the people I love to know that I love them. How much I love them.
I want these gray hairs to chill the eff out. (Not really, I’ll probably dye my hair for forty more years, gray or not, so nevermind, scratch that)
I want to stay healthy long enough to see all of these amazing children in my life turn forty (and fifty and on).
I want to disappoint the people I love (and who love me) as little as possible.
I want those people to say, she was always there when I needed her.
I want those people to say, she made me laugh.
To say, we had so much fun, even if, especially when, things were tough.
Mostly, I don’t want the next forty to fly by, with my eyes half closed, while I pay half attention.
I will turn forty while sipping a mojito in Puerto Rico, a decision made on my 38th birthday that I am making a reality (at the expense of other things I could have or do instead) and when I wake up that day, I know I will be the same woman I was when I went to bed. But I will also be one day different. As we are every day.
I will kiss the man I love and lounge on the sand and put my feet and then my body and then my head into the ocean and say, OK, ominous fifth decade, what you got? And I will float on the salty water and probably, almost certainly, swallow some water as the waves roll under me. I will taste the thirst-making bitterness of that lukewarm, beautiful blue Caribbean water.
Forty is coming whether I want it to or not. So I will meet it at the shore. Where earth and air and water meet. I will meet it. I will. And then, right before I wrap my arms around her, I will tell that bitch that she better be nice. Or at least a little bit kind.