Like every other Gen-Xer born in 1967, I turn 50-years-old this year. In fact, yesterday was my 50th Birthday! Happy Birthday to me! After all these years, I’ve learned a thing or two and come to a few conclusions.
By the time you’re 50, you’ve lost at least a few good friends from your childhood or youth. Maybe even a parent or two. Sadly, you turn the corner pretty quickly on all this death. At first, you think the dying is going to let up, but it never does. Eventually, you realize there’s going to be a lot more dying and so you do one of two things. 1) You stop acting like such a queen bee, or, 2) You leave the queen bees behind.
By the time you’re 50, you’ve seen a lot of grief unfold in Facebook status updates and comment threads. A friend announces she has breast cancer. Or worse, her teenage daughter has brain cancer. You routinely dread the day when the 80-somethings in your life — high school teachers, college professors, your mother — pass away and leave a final update.
Basically, Facebook is destined to become your Rainbow Records. You loved hanging out there in the 80s with people you loved. But, then everyone scattered and the record store closed, and worse, vinyl died. You’ve passed the building every day for the last 30 years, but everything that made it special is gone.
Last year, we lost Jamie. He was 49. In 1985, he crowned me queen of the prom. Like so many Gen-X men, he died way too young.
By the time you’re 50, you have a whole collection of stuff you still mourn. Like, losing Joe. And, it’s not that you can’t heal. It’s that the longer you live, the more you realize how much the people you’ve lost have missed. Joe missed getting married, having kids and growing old. He missed all the changes in me and I missed all the changes in him. No matter what, we would have always remained dear friends.
Also, by the time you’re 50, you realize everyone has a Joe. Your grief is not uncommon, and nobody ever gets over the loss of anyone, especially the parent who loses a child and the child who loses a parent.
By the time you’re 50, you know who you love, and you’ve surrendered to the cliché that love never dies. It’s like a beautiful moonset suspended just above the horizon. It is always there awaiting your return. An amber lamplight in the damp, dark night. It sings the song of who you use to be. Who you will always be. Even if you live to be 100, the moonset will always be there to help you find your way back from whatever dreadful place the cruel world or your own momentary lapse in judgement carried you.
By the time you’re 50, you’ve figured out who does and doesn’t love you, and you let the does-nots go. It may have been a best friend or even your father or sister or child or spouse. This almost kills you, but it’s not even like you have a choice. One day, you’re simply freed from the inexorable pull of gravity — whether you want to be or not. Your heart undergoes a kind of escape velocity and it’s gone — the line of reconciliation, the hope. Nothing, especially your mind, can woo it back. Turns out, that like the brilliant comet you are, you can only pass by the sun so many times before breaking apart. Eventually, the dust turns dark and your soul moves toward the porch of stars and locust; planets and breeze; galaxies and resignation.
By the time you’re 50, you stop wasting time on dry obligations. You stop waiting for everyone or someone to throw you a party. You take yourself to the folk house to hear Lucinda Williams or the art house to see My Olympic Summer. You finish the quilt you started for your daughter and the scrapbook you started for your son. You bake funeral casseroles for friends in mourning, and mercy becomes your default, especially when dealing with ridiculous people. Funny how they remind you of how badly you once behaved.
By the time you’re 50, you’re humbled by a faltering short-term memory. And, still, you remember all the kids in your kindergarten class, like Cindy Kortepeter and Aundie Jones. I also remember every single parishioner from every church my father pastored, especially members of the Lost, G.I. and Silent Generations. Pauline, Doris, Florence, Viola, Ruby, Zula, Anna and so many more, are in my heart forever.
By the time you’re 50, you’ve figured how wrong you were about so many things. For example, it’s OK that some friendships end. You don’t have to be bitter when relationships unravel, but instead, grateful that they were there with you at the appointed time to celebrate your victories or talk you down from the cliff.
By the time you’re 50, you’ve figured out that you can’t trust everyone and that worrying about anything and everything is a waste of time. Ninety percent of the things you’ve lost sleep over never happened and you will never get that sleep back. And you need your sleep to help you fight off all the things trying to kill you on a daily basis.
By the time you’re 50, you’ve let most of the big regrets go, but the small fragments of remorse remain. As such, they form a kind of pebblestone pathway to the cottage of your elder years. You learn to live in the moment and not leave so many things unsaid.
My son’s friend lost his grandmother this year. For the last seven years I saw her come and go from all their games. Soccer, basketball, baseball. Long about year five, I finally learned her name. Through the seasons, I came to watch for her, coming through the gym doors or field gates. In seven years, I only missed two games, and because her presence made me feel less alone, I always noticed when she wasn’t there. She had lived for more than 70 years to rise above the arrogance of motherhood. As a grandmother she brought a certain warmth, especially on winter mornings when we gathered to watch basketball.
Last spring, she showed up to a baseball game with a cancer do-rag. Prior to that day, we’d only exchanged casual greetings, but as she pulled back her scarf to reveal her stitched incision, I realized that seven years of sitting in the stands had afforded me some explanation.
Even as cancer took its toll on her, she kept on coming. The last time I saw her she was leaning against the wall of the gymnasium. She looked tired, and I wanted to stop and tell her how much those seven years meant to me. I wanted to tell her she inspired me to build a legacy for my grandchildren — the ones I haven’t had yet. But, I feared the intimacy would be an intrusion. The truth is, I needed to tell her when she was well. I needed to tell her when she was sitting in the stands, on a good day, before she got sick.
By the time you’re 50, you’ve pretty much figured out your purpose in life. For me, it is helping my husband Robert and my three children, Juliette, Sullivan and Bridgette. They are why I am here. They are the mission.
Finally, By the time you’re 50, you’ve hopefully reconciled your relationship with God. He is the One who has been there all the time. He was there with me at L.A. County General on the day I was born. He was there with me at Queen of the Valley when I dislocated my elbow and cut my arm and nearly sliced my Achilles tendon — twice. He was there with me during my latchkey childhood days on London Lane, and when Billy left for the Marines. He was there with me when I was 16 and wrecked my mom’s car. I came so close to being killed that day, I’m still amazed that I’m alive.
He was there for me through tough pregnancies and childbirth; divorce and remarriage; raising children, and the loss of my father. All the things we all go through. He has been my constant companion whose love has never waned despite my wanderings and abandonment. Forever, He has worked on my behalf taking impossible situations and working them out for good. And, maybe that’s the biggest thing you learn by the time you’re 50: Things always work out in the end.