Last year, with only two months to go until I slipped off the mantle of my 30s, I had the satisfying experience, from the inside out, to realize that 40 is not old. It’s not even really considered to be midlife anymore now that human life expectancy has almost doubled in the last century. You can save your midlife crisis for 50 now.
In fact, at soon-to-be-40, I’d never felt healthier or better about myself. I exercised more, ate healthier, and had more endurance and willpower than my younger self, who had the luxury of youth to justify her laziness. Oh sure, soon-to-be-40 me had a hip that ached after exercise and suddenly needed reading glasses, but she also had a long-desired sense of comfort in her skin. I had the clear understanding that in the realm of the body, things were still on gravity’s good side, and that I’d better appreciate it while I got it. At soon-to-be-40, I no longer stared at myself in the gym mirror worrying if I was doing an exercise right—I was just glad for the endorphin rush. I didn’t worry so much about what other people thought of me, whether I talk too loudly, or too much with my hands. At soon-to-be-40, twentysomethings would often crow with admiration, “You are almost 40? No!” Soon-to-be-40 meant wisdom without too many wrinkles, time-tested proof that I could navigate a life, membership to a club that I felt proud to join.
To cap it off, my husband of nearly two decades, neither a planner nor a party man, threw me a huge surprise party, in which he enlisted the secret participation of dozens of my friends for months prior to the event. That night, every time I looked up from dancing, over my constantly refilled glass of wine, I saw the satisfied grin of a man who has known me for nearly half of my life, and loves me as I am.
I still hold 40 close, like a hot coal on a winter night, but this year, looking down the barrel of 41, there’s the realization that no one’s going to throw me a party. I’m already in the club—initiation complete. My only child is 7 and independent enough to make his own meals and read his own books, and we aren’t having any more kids. Just a year later, I have to admit my right hip ache is chronic, I can’t really leave home without my reading glasses, and no one seems quite as impressed that I’m “almost 41.”
I lingered in a few blue days thinking of my upcoming birthday with a sense of loss. Forty has gone so fast; it’s all but a hot breeze on my neck. Will the next decade blow by in a similar blur? Will I find myself crying over an empty nest as menopause takes the last vestiges of my youth and leaves hot flashes and age spots in its wake?
As I was crying into my virtual beer, my father, who is 65, texted me about an upcoming bike ride he’s going on for a week with his girlfriend, who is 60. Together, they ride bikes with an active group of senior friends every Sunday between his hometown and the coastal town of Point Reyes, California. And by “bikes” I’m not talking about three-wheelers; they ride their road bikes, an average of 70 miles, every Sunday. The average age of these committed bicyclists is 75. The oldest in his group just turned 90.
Ninety-year-olds who still ride bikes every Sunday puts 41 years into perspective right quick. We’re all aging—you can’t escape that; but we don’t have to let aging mean an end to living. You’re only as old as you allow yourself to be.
So while I liked the novelty of turning 40, I’m not going to throw myself a pity party for 41. I’m going to wear whatever the hell I want, go dancing without having to worry about impressing a guy (he’s already impressed and still around after nearly 20 years) and revel in the decades ahead of me that are still left to live fully, with greater appreciation for how fast it goes.