I celebrated my 67th birthday this month, happy to be on this side of the dirt. Because of circumstances that occurred twenty years ago, the way I look at birthdays and aging has changed. One of my closest friends had just died of breast cancer. We were born in the same month in the same year. When Miki died, I couldn’t bring her back or lessen the pain of the loss. But I could start living for both of us, and that is what I’ve been doing. Each birthday, I celebrate for both of us. Each achievement in my life is for both of us. Each year that ticks by is another opportunity for me to represent the best of both of us.
Miki’s death started an awareness in me that crystallized at age 50, a sense that I was beginning to create myself anew. Three factors had converged then: her death, the dissolution of my marriage, and the growing independence of my three children. It was a triple ending, in a sense, and the opportunity to become something other than I had been for the past twenty years (friend of Miki/wife of my husband/mom of three young children). I asked myself then how I would define myself for the next twenty years, when, for the first time since entering college, that question would be answered solely by me.
The choices, as they were back then, seemed endless. I had successes, and I had failures. I made mistakes and I embraced the mistakes as much as I did the successes. The failures were proof that I was the sole creator of my life. With that awareness came a huge responsibility. I could no longer be a victim to circumstance. That awareness was even more exhilarating than it was terrifying.
Now, twenty years later, I’ve had another epiphany, of sorts. I’ve looked toward the end of my life, a reality that looms ever closer. When I forget, the illnesses and deaths of friends reminds me. When I forget, my own creeping arthritis reminds me. When I forget, a look at the younger-than-my children real estate clients I have, with high-powered and high-paying positions, reminds me. My mother died at age 60, my father at 87. Let’s say my life span will be the same as my dad’s. That means I have twenty years.
Now, I get to create myself again, this time precipitated by the last of my children getting married, the entry of several grandchildren into the world and the prospect of more to come, and a gradual winding down of my career. I ask myself now who will I be during the next twenty years. I ask myself what choices will I make. And the biggest question of all: At the end of the twenty years (or the ten or the five or the one) that I have left, when I look back at what I began to create today, what will I see?
It’s easy to avoid all of the questions. It’s easy to go on autopilot, to enjoy my marriage and my children and my grandchildren and my friends. It’s easy to continue to do my job, to travel, and to rejoice in each day of health. One could do worse. But at the end of my life, I choose to look back on more.
My life has been a mixture of risk taking and being risk averse. When I look back from where I am now, I see that what gives me the greatest joy are the times I took the leap of faith, the times I went with my gut, the times I believed in myself in spite of all evidence to the contrary. I want the next twenty years to be no different. I want to be able to say that I always pushed the envelope, rather than waited for the envelope to be delivered to me, filled with what someone else had decided should be the content. I want to continue to be the sole, uncontested author of my life.
I am not delusional about the effects of aging. But I am also aware that strength and vitality can come from places other than a healthy body and a young mind. I am aware that as I age, my two greatest assets become perspective and creativity. And I am aware that as I have aged, those assets have, if anything, become noticeably stronger. I believe they will continue to do so in the next twenty, or however many years remain to me.
Just as I felt a huge shift begin in my late forties, I feel the same now in my late sixties. I haven’t decided yet what the next period of my life will look like, only that I am committed to live each day in gratitude, to continue to take risks that scare the pants off me, and to leave this world having left behind people who know how deeply they were loved. To do any less would, for me, dishonor the gift of life that I have been given.
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