Midlife realities

When I marked the new year in 2012, I was excited about having a whole year in which to contemplate turning forty. There is so much excitement and hope in that number, I thought. I planned for several months how I would celebrate and what intentional shift of priorities I could orchestrate to begin the second half of my life.

I remember my mom’s friends celebrating her fortieth with black balloons and over-the-hill nonsense. Baby Boomers are not known for either perspective or subtlety and over-the-hill parties were very chic. Also the life expectancy was much lower back then and people really thought that 40 was more than halfway to dead.

Now, we are told by dreadful checkout-line magazines and gerontologists alike: fifty is the new forty.

Well I happily anticipated forty, hoping with the milestone that I’d get my life together, get a few more adorable grey hairs, and finally think of myself as adult. I thought a midlife crisis was impossible for me, not just because of this delightfully plucky attitude, but because I have at least three midlife crises a year, and my brain must certainly have hit all the low points of existential crisis by now.

What I didn’t foresee about 40, what I didn’t appreciate about midlife until I got there, is this: the inescapable and rude reality is forty isn’t about goals and perspective and living your best life for the rest of your life.

Forty is about everyone around you slowly dying.

Parents. Friends. Colleagues. The people I care about are having surgeries and tumors and divorces and memorials, not babies and graduations and new jobs. The downward slide of forty isn’t about “oh, boo-hoo I’m not vital anymore.” That’s ridiculous. The reason behind many midlife crises, I’m now finding, is that forty seems tips life from waxing to waning.

We all know mortality as a fundamental truth of the human condition. But we don’t know it as intimately as we will. I remember when my grandparents were in their seventies. Three of four died.  And their friends died. And to me, in my twenties, that was something that old people did.

And they do. Don’t get me wrong. Old people do, in fact, die.

But the shock of forty was that grandparents aren’t the reason we’re at funerals any more. Parents are dying. Contemporaries are dying. Forty is a slap in the face that says, “Guess what? There is very little distance any more between you, those you love, and death. We’re going to fall off this cliff together, and soon.”

Forty is about certainty and camaraderie falling away as one by one the people we know intimately, not the loved ones removed by several generations but the people we need and enjoy and talk to every day, get divorced and sick and sad and angry and, eventually, dead.

Forty means everyone gets dead? Certainly that’s not what I’m saying, and not just because it’s grammatically clunky.  There are still graduations and births and marriages and joy and life left in life after forty.

But we’re not having those moments. We’re watching younger generations have those moments. We’re bystanders. We’re wise, knowing, grey, and wonderful. And we’re attending other people’s joys while engaging in our contemporaries’ decline.

It’s a long march, this life. And there’s a sharp turn at forty after which we must choose to constantly pivot one way to support those we love as they struggle and age and die, then the other to watch those we love grow and become adults and choose their own way and then age and die.

Being the sandwich generation makes it sound as though we’re smothered and gooey and limited on two sides. The reality is much more like standing at the top of the diving platform. To one side there are people climbing and progressing and anticipating. To the other there is an exhilarating plunge into darkness. Forty is standing on that high dive and looking right then left then right then left thenrightthenleftthenrightthenleft and knowing there is limited time to choose. There is no option of climbing back down. The only choices are to enjoy the leap or to clench everything and hit way too hard.

Please don’t tell me that there is plenty of life left after forty. I know that. I’m genuinely happy with the priority shifts I architected before my milestone birthday, the progress I’m making toward goals, the willingness with which I’m ditching expectations and emotional detritus from my life, and the care I’m showing friends and family who are sick or dying. Of course there’s time left for some of us. Lots, in fact.

Somehow I thought rounding that corner of forty would make me grownup.

It did. But not in the way I’d hoped for.

Now that I have glimpsed the reality of growing up, I am watching through tiny cracks between my fingers as we all slide, slowly at first and then more quickly, to the craggy rocks and alligators and piranha and icy waters below.


13 thoughts on “Midlife realities

  1. So true. Everyone older than me and wise in their ages are having operations, cancer treatments, biopsies, heart surgery, dialysis, you name it. I am unfortunately learning more about old age medical conditions than I ever wanted to know about. I will be 40 soon, and this is the first year the xmas cards were so gloomy, I felt bad writing about the good in my life to them. 40 will be the year of funerals and sad byes. I am bracing myself.

    • It’s hard to balance respecting sorrow while there is still so much joy in life. My friend who is probably in his last year of life says, “but if you’re having a good day or good week or good year, I want to hear that, because that’s your life and you don’t have to censor happiness just to be friends with someone who’s dying.” Sounds logical, but how do I tell him about job that might last longer than him?

      I hope you have many friends nearby and far-flung with whom you can share your joys an successes. Because those are real and joyful. And your three big news items from last year were just lovely in the sea of “seeking treatment” and “seeking attorney” conversations I had.

      Soldier on, old thing. ;-)

  2. Shit that’s an intense but beautifully written post. I have had some of these same grim thoughts this year as real life seems to be smacking so many people around me in the face. I saw Robin Roberts do an interview recently about her cancer status and she said she gets depressed when she thinks about the past, and anxious when she thinks about the future, so the only way she can stay calm and carry on is to really just narrowly focus on what’s happening right now in this very moment. For some reason that struck me. (I struggle sometimes to keep my brain in the present).

  3. Thanks for cheering up my lunchtime!

    Try being 47. Actually, I look in the mirror sometimes with amusement – I’m getting old! There are wrinkles around my eyes; more of my hair is grey.

    But I hang out a lot with runners. It’s a real antidote to age anxiety. No one cares about age – the important question is how your running is going. Or what your next race is. If you look around at any marathon, you won’t see many 20-somethings, but you will see lots of 40- and 50-somethings. And they’ll be smiling.

    • We know several ultramarathoners in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. And it’s true that they have a more even approach to life’s ups and downs. But they, too, have friends and parents who are dying. It’s not age anxiety we all share, but life anxiety.

      I find the grey amusing, too. But so do my friends in their 30s. ;-)

  4. My 50th birthday arrives very soon, and my first response to this post (after “damn, that’s some awesomely fabulous writerly writing!”) was a resounding “yes”! While appreciating the spot-on truth of your insights about ways in which the fourth decade is different, I’m also pondering how 50 seems to be a particularly difficult number for me to contemplate. My role models never worried too much about age, and I’ve been rather smug and self-satisfied until recently about how I have actually enjoyed being older — not counting the early morning, climb-out-of-bed Rice Krispies soundtrack. But I am kinda freaked out about turning 50.

    My parents both died in the past decade, my siblings are greying and retiring, and my mirror is bringing home the sad truth of my vanity, an unattractive quality to which I didn’t fully realize I am prey. Colleagues and friends battle various serious diseases as well as minor aging-related ailments, and the lovely assumption of invulnerability I lived with in my youth (perhaps never fully convincing, but at least sporadically comforting) has completely shattered. I can use the term “my youth” with nary a snicker! I engage in a startlingly high number of conversations about retirement (Where do we want to live? Will we have enough set aside, or will I have to eat cat food? –yes, that’s a question I ask myself). Maybe I need to write an essay to work through my reaction…

    Love your blog, as always. Thank you.

    • I believe part of our reactions are borne of what our parents used to say about the specific numbers. 40 was joking over the hill. 50 was, especially back then, the beginning of mortality in earnest, of retirement talk and planning, and of winding down. The Boomers used to claim 50 was near the end. Now, of course, they’re frantically redefining every age as the new 40, but there is something to being the age we thought was a grandparent age (at least we thought that when we were young), and that our parents thought was “practically dead” (again, when we were young.

      Now that lifespans are creeping up toward 100, maybe 50 is the new 35. [weak smile]

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