Why do the BIG birthdays freak us out?
The concept of age has always often been a quirky player in my life. I am the oldest child in my family. I skipped a grade so was the youngest child in my class. Being petite (aka basically a pixie as a kid) only added to me looking much younger than my classmates. In addition to being the smallest in my grade (and even the 2 grades below me) I drove last, had a bat mitzvah last, had the earliest curfew.
I also graduated early, finished college early, and then married my soulmate – who is a year and a half younger than I am! Oh the irony! With his beard and 6’2 frame he looks older than me, well, at least to our little kids who find it confusing that Ima is smaller but older than Aba.
I was the first and youngest, by far, of my secular friends to get married but one of the oldest of my religious friends to marry and start a family. Apparently I have I always been somewhat out of the box in regard to issues of age and chronology.
Now I am celebrating a major birthday milestone. My darling 38 year old husband has a 40 year old wife. I actually laugh as I see that in print. It’s hard to believe that I’m 40. It feels surreal. It’s definitely humbling. I know too many people who have not been blessed to reach this stage and I am profoundly grateful to be here. 40 also feels FANTASTIC. It has a magic and a power and a real joy and strength in it.
So why was it shocking to receive a 40th birthday card? (this is for me???whaaaaa?) Why has my husband nervously wished me a happy birthday this year? Why did I adamantly refuse a 40 yr “pity party” birthday party? What is the real cringe-factor here?
The aversion to aging is not always about physical decline. I’m stronger and healthier now than I was in my 30s, and happy about the normal childbearing “badges of honor”.
For me it’s not about slowing down either– with a baby and teenagers to toddlers with several in between, I’m more active and sleep less than at any other stage of my life.
It’s also not about feeling decrepit – I feel more grounded and confident and fulfilled than ever before.
So what is so weird about 40? In fact, the number of my age sometimes doesn’t even make sense to me. I met an amazing young couple (she is the teacher of one of my kids) that I would love to befriend and was about to ask over – until my husband stopped me by pointing out that we must seem ancient to them. Us! Old? Unthinkable! But then I do the math and he’s right. We are at least 15 years older than them. I want to tell them that we were them just a blink ago, and that we are still young and cool – just smarter than we used to be. Of course I say nothing and keep away lest we seem like old weird stalkers. Darn those digits!
Now back to the ick factor of aging – let’s just be honest, it’s a reminder of mortality, of the shortness of the journey, of inevitable death creeping up on us. And we pity the oldest people who seemingly have the least time left. The funny thing is, this reminder that the end is approaching is exhilarating to me. It’s a gift. The older I get and the closer I get to 120 please GD, the more alive I feel. The realization that life is short enables me to let go of so much stupidity. I simply don’t care anymore about so many little things. Someone doesn’t like me – too bad. Someone wants me to be silenced? Mwaahahaha! Good luck. And if I like you – I’m not afraid to let you know or be the first to extend an invitation – the clock is ticking – let’s get some coffee!
This awareness of mortality also sharpens my focus like a laser. It gets my priorities sorted. Hours spent doing homework or organizing toys – waste of life. Hours spent cuddling or laughing – truly living well. Time spent tuning out – squandered life. Time spent intensely focused on admiring the perfect whorls of hair on baby’s head – utterly connecting to G-dliness. Time spent with elderly grandparents – priceless. Time spent with nudniks – waste waste waste of precious time. Things are so clear, simplified, logical. Events, issues, even people fall into two categories – worth the time or not worth the time. Easy.
I wish I would have had this clarity in my twenties and certainly while I parented my first few kids – back in those days I frittered so much time away on getting them to do meaningless tasks and show up at mindless events. How I wish I could tell young-parent-me “let them wear what ever they want, it makes no difference. Don’t send them to school till they are begging for it -because kissing and cuddling and jumping in puddles with mom is far more valuable than anything in ec2 (and truth be told even 8th grade). Be late for almost anything if it means you get to watch baby ducklings or touch some moss on a log. Exploration trumps punctuality. Creativity trumps memorization. Humor is seriously important. Most of the things that seem so important are probably not and the little joys of life are actually the major ones.”
You see, one of the best gifts of aging is that you realize that real life experience trumps all. And it really counts once you start racking some up. That’s why we should make time to learn from our octogenarians and beyond – instead of pity for them we should feel awe. (And hey you teenagers in my gym class – start showing me some awe!)
So thank you Hashem for the gift of life and experience. Thank you for the gift of aging because it means living better and living truer. May I be worthy of the journey!