No, you didn’t read that title wrong. Yesterday was my birthday and I’m very grateful to be another year older.
A friend of mine in her sixties was getting some dental work done recently. “Maintenance,” she said with a sigh. “It’s just part of growing older.”
I’ve spent a large part of my career with women around twice my age. They are always trying to warn me of the perils of aging. They warn me of how terrible it is and how I really need to appreciate being young. Perhaps these were lessons that never sank in when they were younger. I just smile and nod.
My mother died of cancer at age 49 and my aunt at age 55. They both had a genetic mutation that made them predisposed to the disease. I also had two cousins who died in a car crash when they were in college. For my family, death has never been too far away.
I spent about fifteen years not knowing if I had the same gene mutation that killed my mother and my aunt. This meant that I was very unclear on my risk for early mortality. On the one hand, this encouraged me to eat healthy, to get plenty of sleep, to live in the now, and to never take my time for granted. On the other hand, it cast a large question mark over my life.
For some reason, I was never able to find an OBGYN who was willing to do the genetic testing until about a year ago. When I finally got the tests done, I found out that I didn’t have the gene. I was the first woman in my extended family to test negative for it. Suddenly, the second half of my life opened up. I could stand to wait a few years to have children without raising my risk of cancer. I no longer felt silly putting money away for retirement. I could dream about what I might like to do in my golden years. I could count on with a bit more certainly all those milestones of life that others take for granted.
What a lot of women fear in growing older has become for me a blessing for which I am continually grateful. Bring on the achy muscles and creaky knees. Bring on the forgetfulness and the hot flashes and the wrinkles and saggy places. I am ready for all of it because I never knew if I would be able to have those years at all.
Believing from a young age that I could die young had another added benefit: every day counts. Life needs to be lived with no regrets, because we really don’t know when our time will come, and with gratitude, since every day we are alive is a gift. It is not some privilege that life is obligated to give us.
So I have a small request for the young and old. It is good and well to feel what we need to feel and complain when we need to complain. Bad days (and months, and years) happen and are a part of living. But if you can, remember from time to time that the days we have on this earth are a gift. Do it for all those young people who did not have the blessing to be alive today. But more importantly, do it for yourself, because nothing is more nurturing to our own happiness than taking a moment to appreciate the simple act of living and all the wonders it entails.
So this birthday, and every birthday, I am taking a moment to practice gratitude that I was given another year of living. And, I’m thinking of how to squeeze the most magic out of the next year of my life, one day at a time.