On Turning 50



“That time of year thou may’st in me behold,
Where yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang…”

Okay, hold on. I’m not that old. Yet. A mere half-century. A spring chicken, really. They say the first sixty years are the hardest. Or is that the first seventy? What with advances in medical technology—for those who can afford it—is eighty the new forty? I should ask my mother. She’s eighty-three and recovering beautifully from surgery for a badly arthritic knee. Tough old bird, my mom. I should be that robust when I’m her age.

Age. Not a fun subject for me recently. Funny, I didn’t have a problem turning forty. Forty didn’t feel old. I got a lot of entertaining mileage out of jokes about finally qualifying as a “middle-aged crank,” who could start berating manners-challenged, random strangers for not picking up their litter and throwing it away properly, or putting their emptied grocery carts in the designated collection spot instead of leaving them any old where in the parking lot. “Common courtesy beyond you, is it? What, were you born in a barn? The rules apply to everyone, you know. That includes you, Chicky Boom-Boom.” And so on. My alter-ego, righteously crabby and way-too-intense domestic diva Prudential Blatz, could come out and play whenever I felt like it. She has that middle-aged crank sensibility; forty was the perfect age for her. As for my real self, I’d been married a decade, just had my second kid, and felt like I was hitting my stride. Forty gave me gravitas without making it a synonym for decline.

Fifty is different. Fifty is weird. I bless my friends who are in their latter fifties or sixties now, and who scoff gently at me when I talk of feeling old. They are dynamos, these women (and some men as well). As full of energy as any youngster of twenty- or thirty-something, but with a lot more grit because of the life lessons under their belts. I wish I was where they are, aware of their years but not letting it matter a damn. I would like it not to matter that, barring extremely good luck in the genetics department, I almost certainly have less time remaining to me than I’ve already lived. I’m on the downslope, and all of a sudden there doesn’t seem to be enough time left to accomplish things. To write all those novels, see all those foreign places, learn all those fun things like how to speak Gaelic or read Hebrew or play the piano or the Celtic harp. Where did the time go, and how do I carve out enough of what’s left between earning a living, running the house, being a mom, and everything else on my daily to-do list?

I know at least partly why fifty is weird. Our family lost two important members in 2011 and 2012, my mother-in-law and my dad. Mama Sylvia right before Thanksgiving, my father two days before the following Christmas. We’re down by half of the vanguard generation—the parents who stand in the gap between us and death, with our children coming up on the road of life behind us. I still have my mother and my father-in-law, but I can see myself moving into that vanguard spot, and I’m not ready. I’m not sure anyone ever is.

Not that there’s any way to stop it. Part of life is that it moves on. Usually, though, we’re not so aware of how relentless that process is. We bury that awareness under mundane concerns and ordinary joys, taking each day’s routine for granted. Until something happens—a loss, a life-change, a birthday with a certain number attached—and awareness bursts through like blinding light through clouds. “I was blind, but now I see.” Amazing Grace.

Maybe it is an amazing grace, to be able to see that downslope and not be afraid of it. Or, if we are afraid, to be something else as well. Inspired, energized, courageous. Determined not to drift, to instead make what we can of our moments and treasure them as they pass. Ordinary or extra-special, shot through with happiness or weighted with pain, doesn’t matter. They’re ours, every single damned one, and we can never be sure exactly how many we still have. That alone makes them, as the saying goes, pearls beyond price. Even the downright annoying moments, like the ones we spend getting stuck in the 15-or-less checkout line behind the woman with sixteen cans of soup who wants to pay with exact change, or waiting on hold for tech support somewhere in Calcutta to help you figure out where your #$#%@ computer left its brain.

Okay, fifty. I see your gauntlet now, like a challenge at my feet. Time to step forward and pick it up.

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