Big Birthdays

Whoever said age is just a number has not yet turned 60. In many ways it’s the Mt. Everest of birthdays—the apex at which you can glimpse, behind you, the roads not traveled and, in front of you, the sloping unknown. Grassy meadows on both sides, with some crabgrass thrown in to keep us alert.

To celebrate my chronological milestone, all three daughters came in town and gifted me a day of surprises: a scavenger hunt marked by thoughtful little gifts along the way. Each point on the hunt took me to a destination that was indelibly linked to our joint history: the elementary school, our favorite meadow, my college campus, our church, the beloved library where my mom and I spent so much time.

Obviously thoughtful in its own right, the scavenger hunt was also apropos as I have been mentally retracing my steps up the metaphorical mountain of years: considering where I’ve been, the origins of the crease lines around my eyes. How did they get there? How did I get here? And why do I still feel like I’m under 30?

Turns out I’m not alone in age denial. A recent article in The Atlantic talked about subjective age: the gap between the age we feel inside and the truth on our driver’s license. Researchers says it’s not how old we feel but how old we are in our heads. Not just semantics, rather it’s a case of mind over matter: Feeling we are younger than we actually are is a kind of optimism. According to The Atlantic, “[You] envision many generative years ahead of you, that you will not be written off, that your future is not one long, dreary corridor of locked doors.” (Jennifer Senior, “The Puzzling Gap Between How Old You Are and How Old You Think You Are,” The Atlantic, April 2023.)

Speaking of long, dreary corridors and locked doors, my mother was afraid of those, of losing purpose. More than once, when asked, she said she felt like she was still in her 30s. In her last few years, she felt she had finally aged to her 60s.  

Much of the difficulty in aging, I’m convinced, is because so many of life’s mysteries have been solved. I now know I will never be a Rockette, that my children, while beautiful and smart, are not budding Einsteins. I will never have healthy nails or be able to (fill in the blank). All those imperfections in my face/body/personality: still there. I have experienced enough career highs and lows to know that I have reached my highest earning potential.

All those paths, those contours of life that had not yet revealed themselves to me when I was “young” are in my rearview mirror. I have succeeded; I have failed; I have lived.

A few days after my birthday, I went on a walk with my blue-heeler Reese, and it got me thinking.

On this particular afternoon, a man was walking two unwieldy dogs down our usual sidewalk, so Reese and I headed in the opposite direction. Basically, we took our daily walk but in reverse. This meant Reese explored the yard on the eastern side of the sidewalk. Although we passed the same houses, the same trees as always, everything seemed new. Unexpected.

What if reaching a milestone birthday inspired us to live our lives in reverse? What if instead of wishing the spring along so that we could get to summer break, like we did when we were 10, we savored every budding tree, every temperate afternoon. What if we rejoiced in the pristine icicles without wishing for warmer weather. How many crisp autumns are lost on us because we’re looking forward to Christmas? What if we took the opportunity to really experience those life events we’ve come to take for granted.

Part of the aging process is that life’s treadmill slows. If we lean into it, perhaps the gentle whirring down of our machine can be a splendid, languorous cool down. Anyway, it seems a beautiful idea.

My birthday scavenger hunt was a little like my walk with Reese: living my life backwards and returning to places from my past. Each destination carved me into who I am, and with each experience came substance. I’m constantly telling my daughters and their friends: “Enjoy this age. Time goes too fast.” But the truth is, I’m not sure that’s possible for them. If we hadn’t sweated the small stuff when we were younger, could we ever have glimpsed what’s important? If the climb up the mountain of years had not been rife with failures and disappointments, would we have learned to tell the difference between the ephemeral—money, possessions, jobs—and that which is everlasting? Love, family, contentment.

I talk of wisdom I don’t really have. To be honest, the future scares me: specifically, the fact that the road ahead is not as long as what lies behind me. I know what I hope for. I want to be the 114-year old woman recently released from our hospital. “It was just dehydration,” the nurse told me. “She went home talking about what she was going to eat for dinner.”

I remind myself that when my mother turned 60, none of my children yet existed. There were not yet great-grandchildren, of which there are now many. I am invigorated at the thought of whole lives not yet part of mine—of generations yet unknown and adventures of which I haven’t even begun to dream.

At some point in the walk, Reese stopped, confused. He seemed unsure which path to take once he was walking in reverse. He raised his muzzle, now gray, to me for guidance, and I reassured him to forge ahead, to discover what’s out there.

Age is just a number.

6 thoughts on “Big Birthdays

  1. It’s like you read my mind. My Mt. Everest is in 6 weeks. Oh, that long road behind me! Pretty scary. I’m as confused as Reese. I just hope someone sends me on a scavenger hunt….. or a pub crawl. 😜 Happy birthday, Mel!


  2. I’m just a little ahead of you in numbers but I can say so far the 60s are good. You are right though, I really have to remind myself of my age because I totally feel younger than that number. But I am starting to realize there are less days ahead than those already lived. The good thing is I now appreciate every day God gives me and live in the moment, while still hoping there are a few more ahead. I’m also hoping you will buy that beach house when you retire and let me come visit. Great read today Melissa. Thanks!


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