"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."
But after you've been through this crucible, there are moments when the pure joy of living overwhelms you. There's no underestimating how, after months of feeling horrid, feeling just plain-old normal can make you downright euphoric.
I stopped seeing aging as loss, but as years gained. As time on this earth stretched out to encompass the widest aperture of perspectives: you are the child, then you are the parent, you take care of your kids, then they take care of you. At a wedding I attended recently, the father of the bride put this very succinctly: over your life, if you are lucky, you play many roles at a wedding: you are the guest, then you are the best man, then you are the groom, then you are the uncle making a toast, then you are the father giving away the bride, then you are the honored grandparent. The operative word in the last sentence is "lucky." For longevity is not assured. And when disease or traumas strike, you realize that what you want, what all of us want more than anything, is just to be able to grow old. "Because," as a friend put it, "turning 50, or 60, or 70…is much better than the alternative." Which is to say, not turning 50. The alternative to aging is dying before your time.
From the perspective of forty, my parents' generation has thirty good years on me—thirty years of stinky French cheese, and white-water-rafting trips, and kids' soccer games, and Thanksgiving overstuffedness, and barefoot walks, and tickled bellies, and words written, and wounds healed, and DIY-projects checked off the list, and dancing the hora, and wine shared, and laughs, and fish caught, and ideas conceived—and my grandparents' have another thirty on them yet. There's so much to do, so much to look forward to. Why do we experience our birthdays with our chair turned towards the past, when we should have the panorama view of all that can yet be? Ok, we're not 22 anymore. But now I'm greedy, ravenous almost, to be 42, 52—ah hell, 102 “and a half”! What a glory that would be!