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.

080I 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.

16 thoughts on “It ain’t the wrinkles, folks

  1. Jen I love your writing. I always think of Bette Davis’s comment “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” There is something freeing about aging. I believe we start focusing more on joy and enjoying each day. Losing those we love before their time seems so unfair. I’ve never handled that part of life very well. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. Friends are life’s special gifts.

    1. Eileen I’m hearing the “enjoying each day” more and more, and I think there’s something to it. When more than one person brings that up, I listen! Thanks for your words of wisdom.

  2. WOW that’s beautiful, all of it. After loosing my Mom a year ago I realized it never occurred to me everything she went through and all the emotional loss she suffered as she lost her parents first and then her siblings one by one, till finally she was the last to go. Along the way I somehow arrived at the end of my fifth decade. And, the cycle starts all over again. So sorry for your loss.

    1. I lost my mom this year too. My sympathies for your loss as well — it’s really hard. I guess losing so many people is the painful cost of living a long life. I’m still coming to terms with it. :/

  3. You always come up with wonderful analogies, start the post with them, then loop around and reconnect with them at the end. Very powerful.

    And yes, I think stumbling around, forgetting and remembering is pretty much how later life works.

    1. I think it’s a reflection of how I get there myself, mentally. I’m glad it works! And I agree completely with your last statement! (And it’s also how much of the first part of my life went too. 😛 )

  4. I’m fortunate not to have lost any of my contemporaries yet. Thanks for reminding me to stay determined to not allow myself to consider my aches, limitations, wrinkles, and gray hairs to be actual problems.

    1. My aunt, who has many of the same outdoor passions I do and is always on the go, said the most fantastic thing to me when she was here visiting when my mother was dying. My mom had serious arthritis, and I expressed that I was afraid of getting it. My aunt said, “Jen…I have arthritis too. I’m in pain a lot. But I can either be in pain on my couch or in pain on a trail. I just choose to be in pain doing what I love.” And it’s like the world shifted. I can handle pain; it’s inability that terrifies me.

  5. A somber topic but I was laughing at the start – having been to the bug bowl. I however avoided the spiders and though I was brave enough to sample a chocolate covered ant there was no way I was going to participate in the bug spitting contest!!
    Age has made me much less fearful and much more fierce!

  6. Interesting how the things we fear and don’t fear evolve, especially when one of them is old man time, looking over your shoulder. It’s a little hard to accept that I’m now in the oldest generation in my family, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to hunker down – the world is still full of wonderful things to see and do. Congrats on high fiving the big bug, it’s just a small step to feeling their dancing shoes on the palm of your hand.

  7. I remember, years ago, my dad saying that their friends’ Christmas letters used to talk about babies and kids, and then where the kids were going to college, and who was getting married, and then all about grandkids and travel…and suddenly it seemed they were filled with medical issues, aches and pains, and death. He was so sad that I always remembered that conversation. Now my husband and I are in the age where our own friends are dying, some, as you say, way too young. And certainly our friends parents, often also friends of ours, are gone and going, as are our own. The only way I can get through the growing list of lost people I cared about is to deal with each as it comes and try very hard not to think about the total accumulation. And, as you, enjoy every damn day I get.

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