From Chicken Soup for the Soul in Menopause

Scary Numbers

I was one of the lucky ones who had never been traumatized by a birthday. That couldn’t last forever, of course, and when the birthday blues finally struck they felt more like the birthday black-and-blues!

How did I escape for so long? I wondered to myself. When the big 3-0 rolled around, I was getting married. I was focused on the future rather than the feelings of fading youth. My life was still carefree, and I didn’t look any different than I had in my twenties. Thirty was just an abstract number that didn’t apply to me.

When forty loomed on the horizon, I was giving birth. Babies are not only fun to have around, but they make great fashion accessories for moms over forty. Amidst the camouflage of a drooling infant, people tend to lump you into the category of “young mother.” It’s easy to be in denial about your age when you are just embarking on a decade of Disney and dolls. In such a jolly setting, the big 4-0 didn’t scare me in the least. In fact, not only was I not trying to hide the numbers, I didn’t even mind volunteering the information.

But that kind of naïve optimism couldn’t last forever. The fabulous forties were flying by, and I was blissfully oblivious to the numbers piling up behind me. I was oblivious, that is, until the number forty-nine rolled around.

Suddenly, it was as if a car was racing toward me at 100 miles an hour. I wanted to slam on the brakes. But there are no brakes in the vehicle of life, only a limited warranty. I was moving forward at top speed whether I liked it or not and heading for a crash. Soon, I would have sagging bumpers and flat tires. I would be a wreck.

For the very first time I felt empathy for all those afflicted with the thirty-something and forty-something blues. The prospect of turning fifty was really getting me down. For this reason, I made the most of forty-nine, clinging to the number “four” like it was a lifeboat. As the days sped by, I began to panic. Physical changes were starting to creep in, but I refused to acknowledge the “M” word, secretly referring to it as “many paws,” a joke I shared with my aging Chihuahua. For me, the physical symptoms seemed like small potatoes compared with the psychological impact of kissing my youth goodbye.

My anxieties were aggravated by the media. If fifty was supposed to be the new thirty, why did the media treat it like the new eighty! From life insurance to health-care, all the commercials seemed to begin with the same outlandish phrase, “If you’re between the ages of fifty and eighty, this message is for you. . . . ”

Could fifty and eighty actually be part of the same demographic? When you’re still buying your jeans at the Gap and doing cartwheels in the backyard with your grade-schoolers, retirement plans and health-care products seem like futuristic curiosities. It is hard to retain such youthful optimism when advertisers keep bombarding you with the need to plan your own funeral.

Even leisure activities offered no refuge. While watching the movie Sunset Boulevard, I was confronted with the image of archetypal decay—Norma Desmond, the faded movie star—a woman of fifty! I ran to the mirror and studied my reflection; was I ready for the waxworks? In a panic, I planned to buy stock in Oil of Olay. If need be, I would submerge myself in a vat of the moisturizer!

Despite it all, I tried to keep my spirits up and ignore the negative hype. D-Day arrived, and I vowed I wasn’t going to get psyched out by a number. Then it happened. It came in the mail on my birthday, and it wasn’t a coupon for a free scoop of ice cream. It was a subscription to AARP, a magazine from and for the American Association of Retired Persons! I snapped. It’s hard to keep your chin up when it’s starting to double! I faced the day like a zombie. I felt like I was walking the plank.

Though birthday plans were in place, I was numb. As we drove off to a nearby ski resort, I was sleepwalking through the day. I just couldn’t shake the unsettling feelings. The big number had been haunting me for months, and now it had arrived. Was this really the end of my youth?

Then, the strangest thing happened. After we arrived at the lodge and my daughter and I took off in the snow, everything changed in an instant. It was her first time on skis. She was having the time of her life. I was having the time of my life, and my husband and youngest daughter were cheering us on from a chalet balcony. I forgot about numbers altogether. We stayed on the slopes for hours. The feelings of gloom and doom had vanished into the crisp, snowy air. Not only did I enjoy the day, I got through it without breaking my hip! It occurred to me that joy strikes like lightning and isn’t tied to age. If I was having the time of my life, it didn’t matter what time it was— chronologically speaking.

Older isn’t necessarily better than younger, but it isn’t always worse. In fact, on certain occasions it can actually be better. If the clock had stopped at forty-nine, I would have missed the fun I had on the scariest birthday of my life.

So from now on, I will leave the numbers to the mathematicians and go back to being my old self again. My younger old self, that is.

E. Mitchell

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