FUCK EACH sage-burning white dude with dreadlocks for co-opting the words I want to use right now.
I’ll turn forty-seven next week and, inarguably, will keep sliding closer to death than birth. (Unless I actually die, of course. Hold that thought.) So many reasonable assumptions–that I would be healthy, live in New York or grow old with the person with whom I was young–have disintegrated like candle ash. Yet the words that resonate most deeply now are “gratitude”, “humility”, “clarity” and others found on hemp paper greeting cards at the nearby health food store, alongside their cruelty-free lip gloss in eight shades of “Fig.”
And despite my impaired health and dead partner, I’m a red lipstick kind of girl, a feminist who wears fishnets and sports a wit so ribald, the two most frequent reactions to my work are “You’re hilarious!” or a disdainful “I can’t believe you wrote that.”
So, all of the above, in addition to being a wee bit solipsistic, leaves me both puzzled by and in awe of middle age. Because at 47, the term fits perfectly but feels weird, like the copious bridesmaid dresses I was forced to wear long ago. I’ve never been too concerned by age, in part, because my health went incurably awry at 24. When my friends were traveling the world and getting promoted, I was contending with wheelchairs and canes and misinformed doctors who insisted I’d never work again. (Ha, ha, assholes.) Twice I’ve been told I might be about to die. I’m super-glad I did not. I’ve fought recurring bouts of major depression most of my life, but growing older has never been a factor because like everyone who became ill young, I figured out quickly this whole shebang is finite. If my high school wardrobe can now be considered “vintage”, well, that’s a pretty cheap price to pay to draw breath in a war-free part of the world with ample food and clean water. I’m still here and am so grateful.
Nearly each week, another friend or colleague loses a parent, if they haven’t already. Those close with their folks are bereft; those distant are left with ends that can’t be tied. And all of us fortunate enough to have living parents we love know the people who gave us life will leave soon. It is the natural order, of course, but no less awful because of it.
The combined forces of the Great Recession and the Internet economic model have permanently altered the publishing industry, leaving so many talented writers with a fraction of the income they earned even a decade ago. A field that both draws depressives and seems to create them is witnessing its own suffer horrifically and I love my work but loathe the mounting damage.
With increasing frequency, a peer develops cancer or other devastating illness. It’s no longer the generation ahead of us or the generation ahead of them. It’s us. We help as much as we’re able, unaware if we’re next or if we’re among the fraction who’ll remain 40 more years.
I’m humbled, because there’s nothing I can do to stop any of it. I’m a compassionate and loyal (if occasionally cranky) friend, I listen and send food and my loved ones know I love them to an almost surreal degree. But that can’t stave off death or illness or financial implosion. I can put salve on the burns but I can’t put out the fire. And what kind of hubristic idiot ever thought she could? Well, me. When I was much, much younger, of course.
By any metric, we’re the lucky ones, those of us who can call 47 middle age and not old. Geography and historical chronology have gifted us with time. I’ve already outlived one grandmother who died at 26 under Nazi occupation and am on track to outlive the other, felled by a massive stroke at 46 and comatose until she died at 48. They’re my namesakes and life brutalized them. I’m the first woman on either side of my family to get to make her own choices. Again, I’m so, so grateful, but mourn the chances they’ll never have and feel guilty I just happened to be born at a better time.
But then again.
My three year-old nephew is the most amazing human I’ve known and no matter whom I love, I’ll still love him more. Massively intelligent and–more importantly–kind, he’s already got the deft comic timing of Patton Oswalt and balletic athleticism of LeBron James. Okay, I’m partial and slightly hyperbolic, but seriously, this kid is the sun and I’m a planet and when he joyfully calls me “Thia Litsa!”, my soul heals and I’m reminded of all the good our species can yield. I never wanted children of my own and the older I get, I’m even more certain I made the right choice. In my heart I know I wasn’t meant to be a parent, but it turns out I was meant to be a thia (Greek for “aunt”) and it surprises and delights me in equal measure. I didn’t meet my favorite living human until I was forty four. How cool is that? The great surprises life can still bring.
I won’t change the course of history, but I’ll leave behind at least two books (more on that another time), countless features, essays and stories and a beautiful nephew who will certainly eclipse me and anything I’ve done. My loved ones know they’re loved and nothing has been left unsaid.
I will end and that brings clarity. My yesterdays exceed my tomorrows. Death will come and it casts a shadow but paradoxically makes the light easier to find.
I’m here now.