I’m not sure when, exactly, I decide that turning forty was a true milestone for me. Traditionally, it’s one of the Big Numbers for women, that turning point were we are re-categorized under the Mother banner whether we have children or not. We are expected to adhere to a different standard of dress, of behavior, one befitting a more “mature” woman of early middle-age. As a woman that tends to defy those sorts of labels most vehemently, there’s really no reason for for me to place such importance on the number. Yet I do, and have, for a seemingly immeasurable amount of time.
Perhaps it is because from a very young age I felt I wouldn’t live to see that number. We’re born, we live a little while, we die, and there’s not a day I wake that I don’t wonder that I survived the previous. Perhaps it is because I am closing in upon the age of my mother when she unexpectedly passed. She was forty-five, still young and vibrant, and so often mistaken for my older sister when we were out together. Is it any wonder that I, myself, am often thought between five and ten years younger than my years? Perhaps it is neither of those things, and I have, despite my attempts to the contrary, internalized the mainstream ideal of the number as a life-changing one.
Forty years seems like such a long time, but in truth, it feels like no time at all, to me. At times, it feels as if I just moved to this city from my small hometown, instead of having been here for nearly twenty years. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much, true. Accumulated much, yes, as I look around at my entirely too crowded home, but not truly accomplished much. The past few years have felt very much of the “one step forward, two steps back” variety, certainly. Yet, I am still here, still working at clearing the stones from the river so that the water might flow. I look around, and must fight off such feelings of failure as to render me paralyzed. All of the things that were expected of someone of my generation by the time they reached my age, I do not have. I’ve no house, no family, and the career I wished for myself is still but wishes. I look close around, and feel I’ve nothing, but when I look farther….
I have done so much in this life. I traversed this country from border to border, east-west and north south, stood on the shores of both our oceans and marveled at the expanse of unbroken blue before me. I buried my mother before I turned 21, and I stood in her stead at the bedside of my sister when my nephew was born, been witness and handmaiden of Life and Death. I saved lives, both animal and human. I have been married and divorced. Loved and lost. I had my heart broken (too many times), and I have held the heart of one (two) who loved me and broken it, as well. I’ve touched the lives of so many people, not just across my country but across this world, made a difference with words where I couldn’t with hands. Made friends, long-standing friends, that I may never lay eyes upon in this life, but that does not mean I love them any less.
I stood on the ramparts of a Civil War-era fort in the middle of the Mobile Bay at midnight and felt the weight of a bloody history both weigh upon and awaken me. Walked paths in old forests alone at night unafraid before I was of age to drive. I won artistic competitions summer after summer from the age of 8, found myself oil painting with adults before I was 11, and did, eventually succeed in my life-long dream of obtaining a degree from an actual art college. I acted on stage, had my writings published, played and directed music in stadiums full of people. I graduated as Valedictorian of my class, and years later, watched as my sister did the same.
I inspired, cajoled, berated, destroyed….
I struggled with the twin monsters of depression and anxiety for what feels like all of my days. Every day I woke up I considered a victory against the vicious little voices in the dark. I chose to be more than the sum of my upbringing, to look back at the detractors of my childhood and make them wonder at my coming so far beyond their estimation. I fought- still fight- with eating disorders caused by well-meaning people who did not understand that words are more damaging than stones. I refused to be the “pretty face” to be pitied, the quiet girl to be ignored, I screamed and railed against the box that society and community would put around the poor little fat girl with too much brain and too brash a tongue. I chose to risk, instead of play it safe. I lost everything… only to gain so very much more.
I grew. I fought. I changed. I lived.
I have done so much in this life.
What might I do next?