Turning fifty feels surreal, like I’m entering my sixth decade and I’ll finally come much closer to understanding those Theater of the Absurd plays that I studied and loved when I was in my teens and twenties. Wikipedia defines these plays as “focusing on human beings trapped in an incomprehensible world subject to any occurrence, no matter how illogical.” The characters have to “draw their own conclusions and make their own errors.”
Much like absurdist drama, life now comes into focus as a true tragicomedy: We plod along, trying to be good people and have some laughs and fun in between the trauma and tears.
At fifty, this makes sense in a world that doesn’t. Fifty feels heavy on my shoulders, but not necessarily in a bad way. I have no significant regrets; just a small sense of anxiety as I take on a new chapter with harsher responsibilities, widening unknowns and inevitably burgeoning losses. I’m not convinced that the AARP discounts will offset the hardships.
I received my invitation to AARP in the mail with the temporary membership card. Edie hadn’t joined seven years ago but I’m curious about these things and not one to pass up a reasonable offer. We happened to be going through our local Dunkin Donuts drive-through while I was opening the mail. Edie flashed the card and we got a one dollar discount. I sent my check for the $16 membership fee the next day. I’ve already saved $2.76 at DD, plus my granddaughter Eliza got a free doughnut at one store during our recent road trip, and I’m not even officially 50 yet. If Starbucks offered an AARP discount, I’d probably do my grocery shopping there.
As I enter my fifties, I don’t expect any great revelations about my identity or self-worth, having gone through most of those sorts of crises somewhere between the ages of 3 and 25. I anticipate and hope that wisdom continues to grow as I move forward. I think I’ve collected a fair amount of wisdom so far. Maybe that’s what’s in all those boxes that are cluttering up our attic and basement. I guess the challenge will be to retain and disperse the wisdom that resides in my brain rolodex through menopause and beyond.
I plan to unload some of the boxes, wisdom-filled or not, to thrift shops. I can picture someone opening their $2 treasured box of 8-track tapes or unlacing a pair of early 1980s era Doc Marten boots and a line from one of my brooding existential poems floats out. “What the F…?” they would question, “Damn hippies…”
Most of my inner circle of friends has already passed fifty, and many of my friends are closer to sixty or seventy. We’ve been celebrating the 50th birthday parties for years now, and soon we’ll start the rounds of the 60th parties. We mark these rites of passage together with joy, laughter, and love, and the bittersweet knowledge that reasons to celebrate are precious, as we also come together more often now to worry, heal wounds, and grieve.
Forty felt significant, a little exciting, settled into true middle age but also ready for adventure and change. We celebrated my birthday in Amsterdam, with tears at the Ann Frank House and the Homomonument, and then with stoned and tipsy laughter through the evening. At dinner, I was facing the window to the bustling street and laughed out loud when I saw a man walk by with a tiny little bicycle under his arm. Edie still teases me about that, since no one else at the table saw it. They just weren’t looking. I know my tiny bicycles.
Along with Edie, my brother Gary, and my late sister-in-law Nancy, I marked my 40th birthday and the new decade with a joyous spring week among the tulips and beauty of the Netherlands and the magnificence of the museums and cuisine of Paris. I was hoping I would get back to France for this birthday, but two new knees is my gift this year. When they start to work properly, and I start to work again, we might think about saving for a trip.
Thirty was hesitant, cautious, and a relief. Good riddance to my tumultuous twenties and welcome to what felt like true adulthood. I spent the evening alone, pensive, sitting on my living room floor with a glass of wine, browsing through about forty journals from age ten to the present and taking a tearful inventory on my life to that point. I put the notebooks in order and I put them away, ready to move on.
I was embarking on a new career, successfully coming to the end of the first of three difficult years of graduate school. Dating occasionally, but satisfied as single and enjoying living alone, I was focused more on studying, deepening friendships, keeping my depression at bay, and opening myself to the changes that a new career might offer.
Thirty soon turned into the first decade of the “Urban Jewish Lesbian moves to Rural Maine.” I came here for my career, and then unexpectedly became woven into an intricate web spun by Edie and perpetuated by the twists and turns of our lives that have intertwined us into a family.
Twenty was exciting, chaotic and wild, but still restrained by the structure of college and the comfortable identity that being a student afforded. I don’t remember what I did on my actual birthday. My life at that time was split into two lives: Campus and university friends and activities during the day, and living off-campus and bartending in a lesbian club in Cambridge at night. This was a time of accelerated learning, activism and marches, poetry, partying, dating, developing both life-long friendships and playing with long-forgotten one-night stands. And that was just one of my weekends.
I was synthesizing who I always was with who I would become. My twenties were a decade of intense emotions and debilitating depression: By the end of that decade, those journals were ready to be closed and tucked away.
Ten was the big two-digit childhood rite of passage, at first carefree and uneventful. The decade quickly erupted that year into the drama of unexpected relocations, first from Montreal to New York, then back to Montreal less than two years later, and then back to New York two years after that. The adjustments of being uprooted were harsh: making connections and then saying goodbye, and changing schools that were culturally incongruent. I’m still traumatized by goodbyes of almost any kind—even when I see other people go through them.
And this week I turn fifty. I am among the last of the baby boomer generation to turn fifty this year. We are the “baby” baby boomers and thankfully for us, fifty isn’t considered old anymore. We aren’t seniors yet, but we are still invited into the AARP. I’ll take the discounts: If I live a normal lifespan, I’ll need them. Who am I kidding? I need them now.
Fifty is noticing that I am older than my grandmothers were when I was born.
Fifty is realizing that I am closer to the Golden Girls than to Mary Tyler Moore.
Fifty is working with doctors and nurses who look very young to me and also being called “Ma’am” by people who don’t look all that young to me anymore.
Fifty is hosting New Year’s Eve parties where half of our friends leave by 11:00, the other half by 12:15, and we’re in bed by 12:30. Okay, that started happening by age 42, but like I said, most of my close friends are five to twenty years older than I am.
Fifty is finding out that teaching patients about menopause and going through it are not exactly the same. I can verify that the continuum of symptoms is wide and weird and I’ve always taught about that. I think a practical insurance billing code should be called “menopausal weirdness.” Emotions are intense again, but now tears lurk so close to the surface that they can combust at any time. Sometimes I wonder if my tears are actually leftover hot flashes that seep into fragile emotions.
I forget more often than I used to, but I know it’s the hormones. Well, I hope it’s the hormones. I tell my patients that all the time “Don’t worry, the hormonal surges that happen during menopause cause chaos and brain fog and it’s not early Alzheimer’s or any kind of dementia. It’s normal and it will pass. The bad news is that it could take ten years and you might have to call Triple A or buy new keys or cancel your credit cards once in a while, but hopefully you won’t leave the grandkids on the bus or walk out of the dressing room without pants on.” And of course we laugh, and then I talk to them about hot flashes and supplements and nutrition and exercise and everything else that good nurse practitioners are supposed to discuss and I send them on their way.
I get home at the end of a long work day and I’m physically exhausted and emotionally spent—also hormones, at least I’m assuming that–and I can’t get into my pajamas and into bed fast enough. Edie and I are in bed, watching the news from Colbert or the Daily Show, or sometimes reruns of Gilligan’s Island or the Golden Girls, checking email on our laptops, and we look at each other at 7:30 or 8:00PM and laugh about being ready for bed. Then it’s paper/scissors/rock to determine who has to get up to let the dog out because we’re both too tired and settled in now to move.
Fifty is watching as many of my friends lose one or both parents; strategizing caregiving together as surviving parents age; worrying as we develop our own ailments and disabilities.
Fifty is watching the puppy I first held before her eyes were open slow down into middle age and I long to stop time.
The kitten who pounced at my toes and leapt onto the top of the refrigerator to hide is getting frail and deaf and I want her to be near me as much as possible for both of our comfort.
Comfort. Fifty is surreal, anxious, emotional, celebratory, and oddly comfortable. I’ve made it this far, in all likelihood well more than halfway. I’ve weathered my share of challenges along the way and I will inevitably battle the rest with my usual stubbornness, humor, tears, brooding and resilience.