With aging, you earn the right to be loyal to yourself.Frances McDormand
With my birthday coming up in a couple of weeks, my 20-year high school reunion in the books and the five-year anniversary of my battle with encephalitis in the rear-view mirror, lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about age and mortality.
For me, the year 2018 seems to have had a singular mission thus far: to not-so-subtly or discreetly remind me that I am NOT in fact the youthful spring chicken I once was. (As if I hadn’t noticed!) In fact, this year has been one long, obnoxious “you’re getting old” parade, slowing down traffic while blasting classic rock they call “oldies” and waving a “Get off my Lawn” banner. It started with the need for reading glasses, progressed to back issues and therefore chiropractic care, and most recently landed me with a mild case of shingles (yes, as in “old people chickenpox”). The not-so-sweet icing on the cake was a (surely mistaken) mailed invitation to join AARP. And there you have it, the crude realization that I am no longer in the prime of my life.
Although, I wish I could muster up the same enthusiasm that my 4- or 5-, or even 18- or 21-year-old self had for just one more candle on the cake, the truth is that as we get older our birthdays become less important…even as we likely have even more reasons to celebrate… These days I celebrate life no less than three times a year… once on my birthday, once on the anniversary of my kidney transplant and once around the time I was diagnosed and treated for AE. I love that, in my family, we celebrate the adversities I’ve overcome rather than mourn the fact that they happened. But I have to wonder, with all this celebrating and gratitude, is there any room to cry over a bad day, let alone struggle with the concept of aging gracefully?
Anyone whose had a life-threatening experience will tell you how grateful they are to be alive- we say it loud and we say it often…and we really are, but the deep down, unspoken truth is that even the experience of true insight into life’s major defeats doesn’t make you immune to the trivial upsets along the way. I call it an unspoken truth because we often don’t talk about it – after all we’ve been given in 2nd and 3rd chances at life, it would be shameful to show any doubt and we dare not mock the fates by ever seeming at all unappreciative for the chance to even be a part of the living conversation. In all honesty, this version of survivor’s guilt can be a heavy burden to bear. Because when you’ve survived a chance encounter with death, you’re not allowed to be anything less than grateful. (Insert standard consolation phrase here: “At least your alive!” Or, “everything happens for a reason”). We know you mean well when you say these things, but it’s not always that simple. Believe me, I know how lucky I’ve been. I know It could have ended much worse for me in a dozen different ways. I know that, and I never forget it… it’s just that on occasion, I’d like the luxury of mourning my youth like a regular, healthy, nearly 40-year-old woman.
So, here’s my true confession: Although I have a generally positive outlook, and while I have completely accepted the nature of my reality, I do miss my thin, healthy body—probably more than most my age; I miss having boundless energy and zeal for new experiences; I miss eating chocolate without abandon and getting carried away with a bottle of wine without worrying about a headache that will haunt me for days. I miss mornings without aches, nights without medication, showers without exhaustion. But mostly, I miss the possibility of opportunities I never received… I spent many of the years that I was supposed to be building a career, meeting the love of my life and starting a family stuck in a hospital bed– or trying to avoid one… Fatigued, sick, battling unseen autoimmune demons, struggling to feel like my old self, fighting insurance companies, worrying about medication interactions and side effects and the potential for relapses…I’ve been busy! I can honestly admit that, at times, it makes me sad; not in a feel-sorry-for-myself way but in a life-just-didn’t-turn-out-the-way-I-thought-it-would way—which is a type of sadness that I suspect most of us can relate to in some way – sick or not.
So why shouldn’t I, like others my age, be able to mourn the passing of time and with it, the loss of an unfulfilled version of my life? Isn’t it possible to value your blessings while also daydreaming of a narrative that’s just a bit less complicated? Haven’t I too earned the right to grieve over my youth just as much as anybody? I propose that, as humans capable of an array of complex emotions, it’s entirely possible—and even acceptable—to honestly mourn our losses while still remaining hopeful for the future and thankful, ever thankful, for both the good and bad that has brought us to the here and now. We need to learn to forgive ourselves for the “sin” of being human and therefore complicated and emotional and imperfect. We need to unburden ourselves of the unfair expectation of unlimited, unfaltering gratitude towards every situation and allow for time to grieve and then, to accept.
So, give me just a quick moment to wipe away this one salty tear, then celebrate my life with me and the fact that after 38 years of constant chaos in motion on this giant rock in a universe that makes everything seem small and unimportant, I’ve somehow managed to survive a hell of a lot, maybe not so gracefully but certainly gratefully. Cheers.