Aging Gratefully

I am thirty-seven.

Thirty-seven seems old.

I know, I know. You’re only as old as you feel, and forty is the new twenty, and growing old is better than the alternative. I got it. But still.

We recently sold our first house—a house we lived in for nearly ten years. Those years blew by so fast I can’t even talk about it except to say that a lot of life happened in that time. We remodeled tons; we had two children; we built two businesses (one much more successful than the other!); we made best friends out of a bunch of neighbors; we buried our beloved old dog; we moved out.

And we aged ten years in the process.

In what feels like no time at all we aged ten years.

That actually scares me. I mean, aging, man. I fear aging.

I fear aging for lots of vanity-related reasons, admittedly. I’m bummed about that, but it’s true. I own an embarrassing amount of “anti-aging” (heh) serums and masks and creams and potions, and I’m always eating whatever berry or nut or seed or leaf the experts are claiming will make me look better (less old). But I fear aging not only because I’m afraid to be saggy and wilted, I fear aging mostly because I’m terrified I’m going to be old (or dead) before I’ve done anything meaningful. I’m terrified of time running out.

This isn’t a worry that has come over me only recently, as the result of a birthday or the appearance of crow’s feet or whatever. It occurs to me today that I’ve been fretting about this a very long time.

Remember being seventeen? Seventeen is one of my magical ages. You know, the age at which things were so great that if you could drink from the spring of eternality, Tuck Everlasting-style, and remain one age forever, you’d pick that age at which to take the fateful sip? Seventeen was great. I had a cute boyfriend, a cool best friend with whom I sat around for hours, drinking coffee and just reveling in our own teenaged awesomeness, and though my world was pretty small, I was bubbling with anticipation because I just knew that my life—a life that seemed to promise only successes (ah, to be young and witless!)—was juuuuust about to get going.

Seventeen.

I was seventeen when my brother died suddenly of an undiagnosed brain aneurysm. He was thirty-one. I had no idea then how young thirty-one actually is. It’s young.

He had a super kind wife and three tiny children, and he was really making a go of things. His was an outdoorsy, hardscrabble existence, but he loved it so much. It was exactly what he’d always wanted. He was where he wanted to be (in Maine), building the life he’d always wanted to build (one of rugged self-reliance and interesting work). He was living his dreams, and when he died, he was actually right on the precipice of really bringing them to fruition.

I’m thinking about him today—the day after Thanksgiving—as I consider my many blessings. I have everything I need and more. My kids are smart and healthy and kind. My husband and I love each other. We live a comfortable life. I like my job. I love my colleagues. I could go on and on.

Is it odd that as I think about gratitude today, I’m getting stuck on the cruelty of my brother’s death twenty years ago? That I can’t get over the bitter pain it brought his wife and children? The unthinkable agony it inflicted on our parents? Is it strange that all this time later I’m sometimes actually, physically paralyzed by the realization that a person can be so viciously and unjustly and altogether unexpectedly ripped out of their own in-progress life?

We were supposed to be comforted by the quickness of it. “He didn’t suffer,” everybody said. I suppose that’s true. But he also never got to succeed. He never got to enjoy the earthly rewards of his work. He didn’t get to see how wonderfully his children have grown up. His burgeoning business never got fully off the ground. He was totally unprepared for death, and that devastates me. The tragedy of his unfinished life devastates me now more than ever, I think, because, like my brother, I’m trying really hard to succeed at something, and time refuses to slow down for me.

I’m so afraid I won’t get to finish.

[I should say here that this isn’t what I set out to write about today, and I’m going to wrap it up because there’s not a cream in my whole beauty arsenal that will de-puff these increasingly teary eyes by morning.]

In life, my brother taught me lots. When I was four, he taught me how to make bologna and cheese sandwiches (for him!). When I was six, he showed me how to shoot a rifle. When I was eleven, he taught me how to throw a punch, which was an important pre-requisite for his lessons regarding boys, which came a bit later. In death, my brother taught me all the usual lessons: make sure the people you love know you love them; take no day for granted; get right with the Lord.

Tonight, I think he’s teaching me still. The biggest lesson of his life is that it’s worth taking risks and putting everything you’ve got into making the life you want. The most important lesson of his death is that I should be so, so thankful to have some time left to do that. After twenty years, I’m finally learning.

On this Thanksgiving, I’m thirty-seven. And I’m very, very grateful for it.

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Dahlia ‘Christopher

Mary Beth McConaheyComment