My husband and I have an ongoing joke this year; whenever we have one of those conversations that focuses on a problem — something sad, or stressful, or disturbing — Erick will end it with, “And also, we’re going to die!”
That’s what I get for confiding in my husband that this year I’ve become acutely aware of how fragile our bodies are, how at a certain point everything in the physical realm starts sliding downhill, how death seems to be breathing down our necks more than ever before.
He tells me I’m having what’s commonly known as a “mid-life crisis.” I can’t believe that I’m old enough to be having a mid-life crisis, but when I note my age relative to the average life expectancy, I admit that he’s probably right. (The average life expectancy for American females of all races in 2010 was 81.1. I’m 38 years old — almost halfway there).
If you’ve been following this blog over the past year, you had some warning that this was coming when I turned 38. The realization that I was entering middle age, the fact that I’d just given birth to what we expect will be our final child, and the humbling analysis from my (20-something) dental hygienist that the onset of my first cavities was probably due to “age,” threw me into a bit of a tailspin. Although I ended that 38th birthday post on a positive note, my tail has continued spinning.
So, lucky you! You get a front-row seat to my mid-life crisis. Unfortunately, it seems that my mid-life crisis will not involve fun things like buying a sports car, getting a tattoo, taking up with the gardener (if only we had one!), or running away to Acapulco. No; for my own mid-life crisis, I will apparently sit right here in my Vermont kitchen and think the following thoughts:
–My body will never be any healthier than it is right at this very moment.
–We’re all dying. What have I done with my life so far? And what will I do with the time I have left?
That last question is a big philosophical issue. It’s important, but, to be honest, I have less trouble with the philosophical struggles of middle age than with the physical. My religious faith helps immensely in this. Also, even if I never get a book deal or win an award in the future, I figure four kids is a pretty decent legacy.
In other words: I don’t fear death as much as I fear decades of chronic back pain.
Fortunately for me, I do not (yet) suffer from chronic back pain; unfortunately for him, my husband does. He’s always been prone to throwing out his back — usually on the eve of our next baby’s birth. But this year, due to a combination of age and a job that requires long hours at a computer, his back pain has become chronic. He takes ibuprofen, he sees a chiropractor, he’s tried acupuncture, he does back exercises and stretches every single night, we bought a Sleep Number Bed, and he sleeps cocooned in a complex arrangement of pillows. Sometimes the pain is better, sometimes it’s worse, but we’re coming around to accepting that it’s probably going to be around for the long haul.
My own aches and pains are more varied. It turns out that when you hit your late 30s after having given birth to four children in six years, that body you’ve taken for granted — ignored — for so long, suddenly makes its presence known. Hello! it says. Remember me? I’ve been working hard for you, and now I’m gonna make you FEEL it!
Too many people live with far more discomfort than I, for a much greater part of their lives. But for almost four decades, I’ve been blissfully unaware of my good health. Sure, there have been uncomfortable moments, but I’ve always assumed that if something hurts now, it probably won’t hurt later. After a certain age, one can no longer make that assumption. If something hurts now, it may well hurt for the next four decades.
Assuming I have four decades left. Not a safe assumption when our parents’ friends are starting to die, and people our own age are diagnosed with serious illnesses at an increasing rate.
It’s all enough to make a person feel a little…down.
I found some solace, oddly enough, at a memorial service.
The man who had died was a member of our church. I didn’t know him well, but our church is small and he was someone who’d quietly touched everybody within arm’s reach during his 88 years. (He read my articles in the Addison Independent, and he often sent me thoughtful email responses). He made a quiet but deep impact upon his world despite struggling with severe depression through the years. It might be more accurate to say: He made his impact upon the world because he struggled with severe depression through the years. He was very open about his struggles, even with me in the brief time I knew him.
He’d chosen the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah as the closing music for his memorial service. Before it was played, the pastor told the story of how Handel came to write Messiah. When Handel found the libretto which inspired his famous oratorio, he was at one of the lowest points in his life. He’d recently had a stroke, which had paralyzed his right arm and made it impossible for him to perform or conduct music. He complained of blurred vision. He was out of favor with the royal court, and in debt due to a failed venture into the opera business. Despite these struggles — it might be more accurate to say because of these struggles — he went on to write a world-shaking piece of music.
I sat there thinking about my friend changing lives while fighting depression, and about Handel composing Messiah with a bum arm and blurred vision. And then I thought about the veritable galaxy of people who’ve made huge impacts while struggling with physical and mental pain: John F. Kennedy had severe back pain, Franklin D. Roosevelt was paralyzed by polio, Georgia O’Keeffe and Isaac Newton suffered nervous breakdowns, Beethoven was bipolar. The notable people who’ve struggled with depression are too numerous to list. More recent celebrities with chronic back pain include George Clooney, Bono, Bo Derek, and Elizabeth Taylor. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Is it necessary to suffer in order to make an impact? Probably not. But one could make a compelling argument that struggling with chronic physical or mental pain sharpens empathy, tenacity, and focus. My husband says that his chronic back pain has made him more acutely aware of — and grateful for — those times when he isn’t hurting.
In any case, reflecting upon the numerous people who’ve had full and meaningful lives that included acute discomfort made me realize that life is not over just because one’s physical condition has begun the downward slide. As I move into middle age and experience increasing physical discomfort, I can choose to fixate on and complain about my aging body — eventually becoming, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “a grumble.” Or I can take inspiration from those who’ve persevered despite — or because of — pain. I’ve been spoiled by three decades of comfort, but it well may be that the decades to come are richer — spiritually, mentally, emotionally, creatively — despite (or because of?) the presence of some physical pain.
And also, we’re going to die.