While the rest of the world innocently shopped for Isotoners and iPads and little pigs in the blankets last holiday season, I was not-so-gently entering the half-century club (you didn’t know I could kick that high or scream so loud, did you?), rolling over from one decade to the next, like the cruise ship Concordia or a rickshaw in an ice storm. Not so gracefully.
And yet, that’s how I, uh, roll. It’s how I do many things (like banging my right temple almost every time I get into my convertible, reaching for mugs on high shelves invariably knocking over something I shouldn’t, demanding my stepdaughter keep her dirty hands off of my pale yellow walls), but my birthday in particular.
When it comes to my birthday, I am known for being a stickler: An ace promoter, advocating for attention well before even Halloween. It’s my brand. The promise I make to those who matter (more like a hard nudge or a hip check): And I’m likely to remind them that since my birthday occurs on December 22, it comes first. That it will be a gift-receiving event, despite protocol. And that I have expectations.
For 50 years, this has been my modus operandi. Obnoxious and irritating, I’ll give you that, but tradition nevertheless. And this year—technically, my 51st—all that changed.
Instead of racing around with a banner and balloons, demanding people celebrate the day of my birth, I acquiesced to a small gathering at my house. It was lovely, of course. The cake layered with chocolate icing and yellow pudding was quite tasty, and the gifts didn’t suck either; but for the first time I would have traded it all in for the chance to be 49 for just one more year. Why? I don’t know why—even though I’m supposed to be fully self-actualized by now. All I know is that, for me, 50 is a hard pill to swallow. Probably because (and check me if I’m wrong) unlike 30 or even 40, 50 shows.
Baby needs her beauty sleep
For example, I am no longer down for a late night out on the town. Baby needs a consistent eight hours of REM sleep or risk looking like Nick Nolte in his 2002 mug shot (Google it). Dinner at 8? Way too late. Lipstick without the invisible fence of a good liner? Forget about it – unless I want to look like the possessed ingénue in a low-budget horror film…
And while I used to pride myself on being able to a) sing happy birthday in full Pig Latin and b) read up close without the help of glasses, I’m lucky now if I can see the clock on the cable box from 10 feet away…or remember the words to the song. But that’s not the worst of it.
Forget that I’ve lived half of 100 years. Even if I wanted to celebrate my march into the fifties with a chocolate-covered box of confidence and joyful anticipation of what comes next, a cruel cadre of marketers will have none of it. Hell bent on keeping me hyper-conscious of my location in the circle of life (and not in a good way), they’re less than subtle in reminding me that Victoria’s Secret is no longer interested in selling me black lace bras and baby doll pajamas. They have welcomed my entry into this particular demographic category by practically water-boarding me with messages of death and disease—wagging their virtual fingers, telling me in no uncertain terms how to prevent, treat, and prepare for these things emotionally, physically, and financially.
I am being virtually assaulted by 50
A tour of my AOL inbox on any given day boasts a veritable who’s who of advocates for the elderly. The subject lines alone are enough to offend, promoting a collective marquis of products and services designed to keep me upright and oiled. Check it:
The American Association of Retired People is practically stalking me, trying to lure me into their grips with the persistent offer of a free tote bag. The Arthritis Association somehow misses me. (Don’t ask.) And the Reverse Mortgage folks are very eager to ease my financial worries.
Just yesterday, I got an update on Medicare Open Enrollment, along with a list of the best foods for joint pain. And don’t get me started on the Hover Round folks and the Scooter Store: Those two are neck in neck for the chance to keep me mobile. Seniorsingles.com is also vying for my attention, even though I am married and hardly a senior (shut up). And the Premier Bathing folks, bless their little hearts, want to put a seat in my shower so I don’t fall onto my Venus razor accidentally.
But the piece de resistance—the solicitation that had me drop hard off the virtual vine was an email outlining all the reasons I needed burial insurance and how to get it. Yes, you read that right: B.U.R.I.A.L. While very practical informationwise, it was also supremely depressing. Because I know how marketers work (I am one): They don’t just send a sales pitch to anybody. And if they sent one to me, they must know based on a great deal of research that I could very well need what they’re selling. Theirs was a not-so-gentle reminder that the specter of death looms ever closer, given my turning 50.
Coming to grips with new realities
And they’re right. Because suddenly, people are dying around me. Oh sure, it’s logical (albeit still sad) that some of those who passed might be my parents’ age, including some of my mother’s friends who doubled as beloved “aunts” when I was a child. My agent, who couldn’t sell my first novel (not that I hold that against him and it’s a moot point anyway) and who was, okay, well into his 70s when he passed. My friends’ parents, starting to go one by one, leaving behind middle-aged orphans—and me to wonder when it will be my turn to lose them (I cannot bear the thought of it, so let’s move on…). Because at 50, I’m all too well aware of the fact that none of us lives forever or escapes the pain of loss.
These kinds of goodbyes are bad enough. But when your peers start passing – when friends who share your historical references and who watched you grow into the person you are start dying, when their doing so is well within the realm of possibility given your having lived half a century – well, that’s hard to process.
My ex-boyfriend of 12 years just passed after a five-month battle with kidney and bone cancer. I hadn’t seen him in eight years, but we kept in touch, exchanging the occasional text and phone call. Little did I know at our last meeting (where I told him I had met somebody else and he told me how much that hurt) that it would end with me living happily married in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and him in a hospital bed on the West side of Chicago, tumors climbing up and down his spine, preparing to take his last breath.
None of which takes into account other friends who are fighting their own battles – against rectal cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, and even lupus. So while I hate to give it to them, those burial insurance folks were right: The experience of death is now in my wheelhouse. It’s a fact I couldn’t get out of my head during my last mammogram when, instead of wondering whether I should stop at Starbucks on the way home, I wondered what I’d do if they actually found something. Thankfully, they didn’t.
Dying aside, when these kinds of thoughts and experiences start happening, as they do at 50, you begin to realize something profound is going on: You’re no longer that young girl who knew that she’d grow old someday, but that “someday” was too far off to even ponder. Who despite the years going by, never seemed to age or even think about it. Never stopped to contemplate that before she could blink, saving for retirement would summon a feeling of panic and the face in the mirror would change–slowly at first and then, in more pronounced ways (think defined lines around the eyes and an overall look of exhaustion that doesn’t always go away with sleep).
Just yesterday, I stood in the bathroom, and caught a glimpse of the skin on my neck looking a bit less taut. I noticed a few more “freckles” on my chest. And the bags under my eyes no longer as easily concealable with makeup. For some reason, on this particular morning, I looked somehow different. Almost overnight.
I took a step closer toward the mirror—and this new self staring back at me with a look of both fear and curiosity—and thought, “So, this is how you look at 50.”
It’s a harsh transition that feels like you go to sleep in your 20s and wake up one day five decades in, wondering when did that happen? And, why did I think I’d be different? Why did I think that aging—visibly—would happen to everybody else, but me?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could age backwards?
And yet, it’s happening. Not aging backwards, but aging forward with unstoppable force (or so it seems). Sure, people say I don’t look anywhere close to my age, and that may be true for now, but it’s only a matter of time. I mean, can a 60-year-old really pull off looking 35? Because frankly, that’s what I’m hoping. But I know it’s not very realistic. Even with the modern-day wonders of Botox, Restylane, and plastic surgery (which I won’t be doing since I’m a big baby when it comes to needles and dentists and really bad break-ups, and anything painful overall), it’s a stretch.
And while you may think 60 is 10 years away, think about it. At this age, time whirs by. I remember when a year used to feel like a lifetime, and now it’s like a snap of the fingers. New Year’s Eve turns into Valentine’s Day and then Memorial Day and then Labor Day and then Thanksgiving and then the holiday holidays, and then before you know it, it’s my birthday and then 10 snaps later, I’m 60. And then what?
Now, I’m sure there are some of you out there, over 50, saying “lighten up” would you? Being 50 is great!
Good for you! I’m sure you appreciate the freedom of self-expression and wisdom that accompanies the passing of the years, but I’m just not there yet. I’ll take having to hold my lip any day. Being able to legitimately shop at Forever 21 (okay, maybe Forever 33). I am MORE THAN HAPPY to have a period every month. In fact, last month, it was several days late and I thought it was all over and cried for three days at the gynecological passing of my youth, until of course it did finally come, but for how much longer?
Frankly, I don’t care that much about having the wisdom of a sage. Nobody listens to me anyway. Besides, I know I’m right. Isn’t that all that counts?
No, I’d rather be the female Benjamin Button—a bit naïve and inexperienced, aging in the other direction, with great bone structure and youthful possibility—than somebody who’s old enough to play somebody’s grandmother in a Lifetime Television Movie. But instead, I’m all too aware of time going by. I can see it in the faces of my nieces and stepdaughter—now in their teens and 20s respectively. They think they know it all, making dumb mistakes, probably like I did. And yet, it’s their time now. Not mine. I have to remember that when I want to scream “DON’T DO THAT”. I had my day and now, well, I’ve got to let them have theirs.
It’s a new chapter and I’m sticking to it
On the one side, it’s like I’m morphing into the graying-haired every-lady on those fibromyalgia commercials. On the precipice, aging gracefully; still wearing khakis (or in my case, black Gap body stretch pants), riding bikes, smiling at a table set by candlelight, and crying poignantly at the opera.
One the other side, I’m accepting the truth of being 50, trying to find the joy and meaning in this part of life. Appreciating that I’m still here. That despite what might lie ahead, my parents are still here. That I have a good job, great friends, and that I love my husband.
It’s not always easy, but I’m not the only person on earth who just had a big birthday. In fact, according to Department of Health & Human Services, there are more than 99 million people over 50 in the United States, 40 million of which have taken AARP up on their offer of a free tote bag. (That must be some bag. Although, unless George Clooney pops out in a Speedo ready to clean my toilets, I’m still not interested. But then again, would 52-year-old George Clooney even give a 50-year-old woman a second look? Don’t answer that…)
And I’m hoping to get there. To join the many people I know who covet the joy of this time of life. Like my friend Joan who, after years of nursing hospice patients, is giving herself permission to move on and spend more time writing and painting and teaching art therapy, things she loves and has wanted to do for years. Or my friend Jill, who takes pride in the well-earned lines on her face and the gray at her temples, seeing them as signs of wisdom, maturity, and a life well lived.
Then there’s my husband, about to turn 56, and the best person he’s ever been. Strong, smart, secure. Still handsome, still searching, still curious about so many things. Sure, he can’t find anything beyond the first layer of the refrigerator, but is that such a bad thing?
For my part, I don’t know what my 50s will bring for me—or what permissions it will lay at my feet. What I do know is that I better get to it. And that, no matter what my age, nothing will take away my love of silver earrings and lipstick, my penchant for nude sandals and black boots, my commitment to physical activity (yeah, I did P90X, although it did require a fair amount of Motrin), and my propensity for silliness. I’m still down for wearing tank tops with skulls on them as long as the skulls look more like flowers and the tank tops have a little stretch. And I remain a big Katy Perry fan. I thought the movie “Pitch Perfect” was awesome. And I’m all for wearing blue nail polish, as long as it doesn’t make the thinning skin on my hands look ashy.
I even take sheepish pride in telling people what to do and how (whether they listen or not), using the excuse that “Hey, I’m a lot older than you,” and reveling in the right to say, “When you get to be my age, you’ll see that [insert meaningful and wise insight].” I’m grown up enough to admit that I often enjoy hearing the sound of my own voice.
At the same time, I’m also extremely proud of the era from whence I came. After all, it gave birth to Judy Bloom, the first-ever computer (like the McIntosh I had in grad school that was shaped like an upright shoe box and fascinated me endlessly), and the awesome music that’s aging right along with me (yes, I’m talking to you Bruce, Billy, Madonna, and even you, you mad wrinkly old Mick … although have a sandwich already, seriously).
And I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t get Justin Bieber or Pit Bull (isn’t that a dog?) or text slang (what the heck is LMAOKCD anyway?). Or that I miss eight-track cassettes and shoulder pads.
And don’t get me started on VHS.
So I guess, at the end of the decade (or the beginning), regardless of which, age really is a state of mind…including 50. My state of mind is conflicted. I wish I were younger of course, and yet, this is the youngest I’ll ever be. Right now. Today. I feel pressured to enjoy it.
And yet, I’m not comfortable with (let alone joyful about) the uncertainty of what comes next—after 50. Will life bring chaos or contentment? Good health and harmony (I pray) or illness and discord? Wisdom or curiosity? I’m not sure how to anticipate any of it, which is really no different than any other moment in my life, just more pronounced given my acute awareness of the calendar. It’s like I’m rolling down a hill versus the slow climb up. And I don’t like it.
So I brace myself for whatever lies ahead and pray that it’s even a hair more wonderful than anything else (says the realist who, at 50, knows enough about how the ebb and flow of living goes). One thing I know for sure: There will be no tote bags involved.