I’ll celebrate another year of life this week, a birthdate reminding me that, despite my resistance, advancing age is unavoidable. I alternate between wanting to ignore the day altogether, and yet, peering into the mailbox to see if it contains any envelopes, greeting card size, with my name and address carefully written on them. The remnants of that just-turned-six little girl remain. I remember a picnic table piled high with gaily wrapped gifts, a chocolate cake, six candles aflame, and underneath a giant hair ribbon, a small face with a grin stretching from ear-to-ear. As a child, I eagerly counted the days until my next birthday. As I progressed from little girl to “big” girl, each birthday promised more possibilities than the one before. I was ready, even impatient, to claim an older age.
That’s hardly the case now. I’m not ready to trade in my current age for another, older one. The smile I wear, when friends and family say “Happy Birthday!” is tinged with something other than enthusiasm. I’m reminded of my older age, and I resist. Even though the AARP card in my wallet qualifies me for certain “seniors’” discounts, I still cringe when I say “one senior, please,” as I buy a movie ticket. I also shun the camera, because close-up photographs are always a shock. Where on earth did all those wrinkles come from? Is my hair really that gray? Let’s face it; I’m just not ready to admit I’m marching in the direction of old age. But ready or not, I can’t deny the inevitable process of aging.
Are we ever ready for the changes life presents to us? I haven’t been, but every stage has offered rewards as well as challenges. For example, I abhor my physical changes—the relentless pull of gravity, loss of muscle tone, the silvering of my hair but , I’m quite content to embrace the title, “Gramma.” I balk at regular visits to my cardiologist, reminded of a condition I thought belonged only others–my grandparents and uncles, not me. I wasn’t ready for a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer either, yet those experiences offered new possibilities for my work and writing.
Sing the tune, “Happy Birthday,” and you’ll be surprised at how many memories suddenly reappear. I once invited a writing group to sing the familiar words. They looked at me with curiosity, but as I began singing, they laughed and joined in. “Now write,” I said as we finished. “What memories does that song inspire?” I wrote too, because despite preparing the prompt, images of past birthdays flooded my mind: the blue bicycle waiting for me the morning of my sixth birthday, the surprise party my husband and daughters managed to pull off few years ago, the headline in my small town newspaper’s society page: “Sharon Ann Bray turns six today.” (It helped that my aunt was the society editor!)
As I thought about turning another year older this morning, I recalled a poem I read a few years ago. In “Ready,” author Irene MacKinney begins with a childhood memory:
I remember a Sunday with the smell of food drifting
out the door of the cavernous kitchen…
She soon shifts from events of the past to more recent ones:
I remembered this thirty years later as I got
up from the hospital bed, favoring my right side
where something else had been removed.
Pushing a cart that held practically all of my
vital fluids, I made my way down the hall…
And finally, she describes the moment of realizing that even though her old life was gone, she would continue into a new life:
I had no future plans, and I would never
found a movement nor understand the
simplest equation; I would never chair the
Department of Importance. Nevertheless,
I was about to embark on a third life, having
used up the first two…
Because I was determined to pull this together,
hooking this lifeline into the next one.
(In Vivid Companion, 2004)
The poet wasn’t’ ready for her old life to end. Are any of us ever ready to see our old lives end because of the unexpected events, the curve balls life throws at us? Cancer, losses, unexpected hardship, the shock of fully realizing our own mortality? Maybe not, but somehow, like McKinney expresses in her poem, we go on, “hooking this lifeline into the next one.”
I’ll be celebrating this birthday quietly with my husband, and by the time we raise our glasses to toast another year, I’ll be facing forward, embracing the life I have and all the year may bring. I guess that’s called being ready.
This week, why don’t you try writing about being ready—or not—for what’s happened to you in your life. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
- Write about how you will pull your present life together with your past.
- Write about the second or third life, the chance for another chapter, that you’ve experienced.
- Write about what “ready” evokes for you.
- Think about your own rites of passage: birthdays, marriage, divorce, childbirth, graduation—whatever comes to mind. Were you truly ready for the changes each brought?
- Imagine you could offer advice to the younger you. Write a letter, knowing all you know now, to yourself at a younger age. How could you help that younger self prepare, to be ready, for the unexpected challenges ahead?