We went to Purdue University’s Bug Bowl yesterday, where I achieved a breakthrough in personal growth by high-fiving a tarantula named Blondie. This was the option offered by my stepdaughter, an entomologist staffing the Insect Petting Zoo, for those not quite ready for the full-on act of cradling a huge spider in one’s hand. It involves putting a single finger out in front of the nearest of the Blondie’s forward-moving legs, and letting it connect for a second or two. A few years ago, I don’t think I even could’ve gotten near the tarantula, but this year, I actually enjoyed feeling the gentle squeeze of Blondie’s pincers as she tried to gain purchase on my finger. For some reason, I could see the spider as vulnerable, a fellow traveler on this often unkind space rock, instead of something to be disgusted or terrified by.
I don’t know; maybe that’s overthinking it. The real point is that I’m still growing, still learning, still challenging myself, still trying new things, and declining to take comfort in set ways — probably more so than I was 11 years ago, or even 20. This has been a pleasant surprise to me: the older I get, the more risks I’m willing to take, and the more I’m able to do. Careening through my 40’s hasn’t limited me. Quite the contrary. My life is still remaking itself in gorgeous, surprising ways.
Ever since knowing my neighbor in Montana a decade and a half ago — a doctor in her 50’s who pursued her life with a zeal and purpose I never saw in my contemporaries — I’ve suspected that for a woman, that decade can usher in an explosion of life, creativity, and self-actualization. Kids are gone; finances are sometimes better; the limitations of marriage have either been improved upon or escaped.
I won’t lie, though; this era has its physical challenges. The mirror’s reflection is still sometimes a shock. My joints ache after fewer miles than before. There’s something ironic about gaining all this freedom, only to struggle to use it. But you persist.
And so it was that we were on our way home from my tarantula encounter, and out of boredom, I wandered onto my phone’s Facebook app. And waiting there was the announcement from an old friend’s new widow that he had unexpectedly died the night before, leaving behind three kids, one under 6, and a devastated circle of family and friends. He wasn’t the first old friend of mine who had died too young. My friends and family starting dying about 3 years ago, when I reached the age that lots of people’s friends and family start dying of natural causes.
And I am here to tell you: forget wrinkles, forget menopause, and forget the hip joints that now ache after only a few miles. I will never get used to the part of aging and mortality in which my friends and loved ones die; especially the ones who are dying long before they should. It’s only going to speed up from here, and I will never get used to it. It never occurred to me that one of the greatest challenges of aging would be assimilating and managing all of that sadness and grief, refusing to turn away from it, without letting it prevent me from living fully the time I have available. I’m not sure how to do it. Maybe it’s something I’ll get better at with time, experience, and effort. Like holding tarantulas.
I don’t think there’s a clean answer for it. I think it’s all about stumbling around, forgetting to live in the midst of loss, then remembering again. Over and over and over, until it’s my own time to step off the train.