Today is my birthday. My 80th, would you believe? I add “would you believe?” because I don’t quite believe it myself. That’s despite the fact that I’ve been trying out the number for months, mostly inside my head, sometimes out loud. “Hey! You’re 80!”
I’ve been saying it when I do a full Pilates hang, suspended by my ankles.
I’ve been saying it when, despite that full hang, I find myself suppressing a groan when I rise from a chair.
I’ve been saying it when I dive back into the novel I’ve been working on for too long and discover that I’m repeating myself . . . again. Do I do that when I talk as well?
I’ve been saying it when I find the world wearying, threatening, horrifying. “You’re 80! Perhaps you won’t have to live into whatever is coming.”
I’ve been saying it when I gaze out at the wonder of a new day, budding trees or swirling snow, and ask how many more such gifts await me.
I never expected to be 80, though the irony is that I don’t suppose I’ve been expecting to die, either. Does any of us truly believe that inevitable, uncompromising end will be our own? Every life is a blink between two unknowns, and as I have never tried to imagine my whereabouts prior to my birth, I don’t attempt to fathom what lies beyond these days I have been given. But my death grows larger in me every day.
Along with the hope that I may arrive there with some grace intact.
Eighty seems such a venerable age that I tell myself I should have some wisdom to impart on this page. But I don’t feel wise.
I have made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned a few things in the process. The two are not unrelated. Mostly I learned because I made mistakes.
I married almost 60 years ago, though I had little desire for the man I decided to marry. (I had never desired any other man, either, and was incapable in that homophobic time of understanding why.) I thought him a fixer-upper. I knew he wasn’t all I wanted, but I planned to bring him around.
I learned that I am the “fixer-upper.” When I finally realized how difficult it is to grow and change myself, I understood the futility of attempting to change anyone else. I understood, too, that no one of his gender could ever meet my needs.
Now, in our mutual age, my one-time husband and I live a great distance from one another, but we come together often on Words with Friends and on FaceTime where we rejoice in and occasionally worry about our progeny. We each accept the other tenderly, unquestioningly. That acceptance represents an abundance of learning on both sides.
Fifty-four years ago, I gave birth to a son, a child so longed for that my desire for him, my need to mother him, lived in my bones. And from the time he was very small, he defeated me every step of the way. Lovingly. Masterfully.
When Peter died at the age of 42 of a disease that robbed him of control of his body and of his intelligence and finally of his sanity, too, I learned, at last, that he had always been the only son he could be.
I learned, too, that the love that lived between us was enough.
I started my life trying to fit in, seeking approval. And I learned that I don’t fit in and that approval has very limited value. I’m not made for the kind of coupling society demands. The activities so many care about don’t appeal to me. And my mind, while possessing a certain uniqueness, lacks some very basic skills.
Maybe no one ever fits in, truly. Maybe we each feel in some way alienated and alone. And maybe we all have to learn, as I am finally beginning to learn, that it is enough to be who we are given to be.
Who am I? All my life that question has puzzled me. I have no answer. None. I don’t even know what might make an answer possible.
But as I move into this end time, I am beginning to understand something else. I am a human becoming. I am a verb, an action, not a noun. I am not, will never be, a static thing that can be labeled and explained. Even to myself.
I am a human in process, making mistakes—oh, so many mistakes—and learning and moving on. And learning again.
And while I’m learning, I rejoice in the love that happens along the way.
Finally it is only the love that gives this blink of time purpose and meaning and even holiness.