I sat on a friend’s couch the other day, sipping coffee and chatting while our four-year-olds momentarily played happily together.
“So how’re you feeling about your birthday?” I asked her. My 40th hits in June, so I’m gathering data. She cocked her head and a slow, warm smile rose up her face.
“You know—mostly good,” she said.
We talked about how it seems like so many women blossom in their 40’s and 50’s. We also talked about our fears about aging, most of which stem from our culture’s obsession with youthful beauty.
“But mostly, I just can’t believe time is going by so fast,” she said. “40!”
“I know. How did that happen? Seriously?” I ask her, shaking my head. “I mean—I still feel like I’m about 15,” I said. “Sometimes 21 or 22, but mostly about 15.”
We were promptly cut off from our existential musings as our kids transformed from small civil humans to screaming, crying dervishes. However, the topic of aging continued to percolate in my mind.
Whenever I get scared about aging, I try to channel my grandfather, who lived to be 94. One day in his early 90s, after a broken leg impaired his ability to walk on his own, he said, “Oh, to be 70 again.”
We were sitting at the round table in my grandparents’ living room in Alaska. Through their big picture windows, I could see Mount Roberts and Mount Juneau, where my grandfather used to hike. It was summer, but the tops of the mountains were still capped with a hint of snow.
When he said, “Oh, to be 70 again,” he wasn’t being funny—he truly meant it. At 70, he’d still been playing golf regularly and meticulously documenting the number of fruit flies he found on his tomato plants. He still spent the winters in Hawaii, where he and my grandmother enjoyed a rigorous social life.
“I still feel like I’m about 15 inside,” my mom confided, taking a sip of her latte.
My grandfather chuckled. “Me too,” he said.
I looked at that man, his face etched with soft lines from the Hawaiian sun and Alaskan wind. His hands, with green veins riding through age spots, rested on the arms of his wheelchair. He had aged well, but there was no denying that he was in the latter part of his life. He and my grandmother were no longer healthy enough to winter in Hawaii, and he couldn’t drive anymore. Meanwhile, I was 25 and already wondering how time was moving so fast when I still felt like a kid.
My grandfather still felt like a teenager inside, too.
The moment froze, the way it does when you learn a hushed, holy truth: most grown-ups don’t feel like grown-ups.
At the time, I barely was one—25 now seems hopelessly youthful. My cheeks were so smooth. And I didn’t have that stubborn quotation mark between my eyes that I notice sometimes when getting my kids out of their car seats—I’ll catch a reflected glimpse of my furrowed brow, which stays indented for a few breaths even after I’m done furrowing.
Ahead of me still was falling in love, motherhood, a smattering of careers.
Forty. It’s not old, especially when I remember my grandfather’s words, “Oh, to be 70 again.” But it’s definitely not young. Forty means I’m squarely an adult. Shouldn’t I have my shit more together by now? Shouldn’t I have somehow learned to cook and mop? Shouldn’t I be balancing my checkbook? Shouldn’t I be vibrating with confidence? Aren’t these the things that grown-ups do?
My grandfather was a successful businessman who enjoyed a very long life. He was married for many more years than I’ve been alive. He had homes in two of the most beautiful places I’ve laid eyes on, and he lived long enough to watch his children and a grandchild enter the family business.
All while still feeling 15 inside.
I’m not going to lie—40 has a sting to it. It means I’m as mortal as the rest of the world. It means we really do get older, and we really do die. It means I probably won’t make it to a “40 great writers under 40” list. It means if I’m fortunate, half of my life is behind me and half is still to come. It means I’ve made hundreds of choices that have propelled me to this moment, to this life, which is so good, but is not brimming with beginnings anymore.
If I am lucky, maybe someday I will say, “Oh, to be 70 again.” When I’m 70, I will probably say, “Oh, to be 40 again.” I will think back to this busy stage of life when the kids were young and loud and snuggly and crazy making. When I had just started writing again. When life was a chaotic, gorgeous juggling act. When the dent in my brow went away after only a moment or two.
But oh, to be 40 again.
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