"I'm trying to make it to one hundred—I really want the party." This from Micah's Grandpa Herb, who informs me when I ask that he is now 95 "and a half." I love that he adds that, sounding more like Theo, a kindergartener, informing me of that extra half year. His family—that is, three kids and their spouses, eight grandkids, and twelve great-grandchildren, among others—threw him a bash for his ninetieth, complete with DJ, and another for his 95th (this one more a brunch) but it's the thought of the festivities in store that Herb says is motivating staying well for the next few years. And there's no reason to think he won't get there. My own grandfather just turned 99; in the summer of 2011 he had a retrospective showing seven decades of his painting, yet he maintained he still had more in store, more conundrums of the canvas to figure out.
Since then, my mother-in-law Sheila, and my father, Erik, both celebrated their 70th birthdays, while I celebrated my 40th. Each of us tussled with the existential birthday demons that loom largest around those decade markers, like shadowy stalkers hiding behind a street sign. "It's all downhill from here," says my dad, even though that's hardly true; "I've got maybe ten or fifteen good years left, tops, and I want to use them," says Sheila, who's determined to travel, soak up her grandchildren, shop, see things, do it all.
"God, can I really be 40?" I asked, "how is that possible?" We are tentative, we resist moving forward, we bemoan the things we used to do, and the tauter versions of ourselves that used to be.
Then I got breast cancer and I wished like anything that I could just go back to being nervous about my crow's feet. To just be able to walk through the door of my fourth decade, without feeling as if I were being pushed down a chute to a rapidly and radically different body, and an insecure hold on that longevity that, truth be told, I had subconsciously assumed was part of my birthright. Chemotherapy has the headlining side-effects, but long after it's over, the changes associated with all that’s involved in cancer treatment can feel like you've taken the fast train to crones-ville. "It's hard to grow old gracefully," I muttered bitterly, "when it's happening at warp speed."