My Unexpected Struggle To Embrace 46

by Melissa Tamberg-Heffron
Originally Published: 
A woman in a blue denim vest with her arms raised standing in a forest

Today I celebrated my birthday with 46 candles adorning the cake.

Normally I would insert some lighthearted, pithy, self-effacing comment here—”the flames were so high, we had to call the fire department!”—but the truth of the matter is, 46 is hitting me a bit harder than I would have imagined.

I realize that the number in no way represents a milestone birthday. There are no “Over the Hill at 46” favors readily available at the party supply store. Not one person has inquired, “Does it feel any different?” So why, throughout the past several weeks, have I found myself dreading the digits?

Maybe it’s because no matter which generation of elementary math I use to calculate, I can no longer officially claim to be in my “early 40s.” I am now “mid” at best; dipping my toes into the “late” portion of the decade by some standards. Only four short years sheltering me from hitting the big five-(uh)oh.

When I look in the mirror, it’s not like I see an old lady staring back at me. Sure, there are lines around the corners of my eyes (go ahead and call them crow’s feet if you prefer; they don’t concern me). I’ve always been fairly active, so fortunately my body has remained relatively toned. But without question, there are countless areas that jiggle a hell of a lot more than they once did. It’s alarming how many yoga poses force me to assume an eye-level stance with newly formed ridges of cottage cheese thighs.

My joints, my cartilage, they’re aging too. Some months I visit my chiropractor so many times, I’m certain he should be thanking me personally for his lavish new sports car. My back, my hips, my knees. They’re all limping toward middle age—I can feel it.

But it’s not the physical aspects of 46 that bother me.

Rather, I am haunted by an ever-increasing awareness of my mortality.

In fact, let’s be totally honest here: I’m terrified of dying.

The preoccupation infiltrates my thoughts, callously converting the casual into catastrophic. That intermittent cough? It can’t possibly be related to the fact that my seasonal allergies encompass every single season; instead, it’s surely the first sign of lung cancer, resulting from secondhand smoke inhaled at some point during the past 552 months I have now been breathing.

That throbbing across my temple? Not a migraine I have routinely endured for more than half my life. Nope, it’s definitely a brain tumor. I’m certain of it.

And perhaps those creaky joints on which I hobble into the chiropractor’s office are actually showing telltale signs of something far more sinister. (A quick Google search of symptoms reveals lupus, bone cancer or muscular dystrophy as top contenders.)


I readily acknowledge that this fear isn’t rational. In fact, the likelihood of meandering gracefully into my golden years would appear to be on my side. For the most part, I eat well and exercise regularly. I’ve incorporated both fish oil and turmeric into my daily diet. I visit the dermatologist twice a year for a skin cancer screening, while my cholesterol is tested annually. And a quick peek into my propensity to be a chip-off-the-old-block would reveal that my dad is perfectly healthy and self-sufficient at age 82, while my mom, at 76, looks more like she’s 60. To my knowledge, there are no deadly cancers cultivating on our family tree.

But the absence of hard core evidence doesn’t abate the worry or make it any less suffocating.

Someone once suggested to me that fear and gratitude cannot occupy the same space, that if I’m focusing on my anxiety then I cannot be engaged in appreciation. Perhaps it’s the warped reasoning of my 46-year-old mind (slowly deteriorating from that brain tumor), but I view it differently. In fact, for me, it’s the exact opposite; it is immense gratitude that actually makes the angst so much worse.

You see, I am so overwhelmingly appreciative for this precious life of mine—the wonderful home my husband and I have carved out with our three kids, the blanket of love that covers us—that I just can’t bear the thought of it being cut short. Of course, we face struggles and challenges. There are days I’d like to throttle the whole bunch of them. But there’s never a doubt in my mind that I have been blessed with far more than I deserve.

Over the course of the next decade, my college-age son could conceivably get married. My high school junior might score a full-ride scholarship. And my baby girl, who hasn’t even entered kindergarten yet, will undoubtedly perform in countless dance recitals and horse shows. She will learn to read. She will experiment with makeup. She will get her period. She will experience her first crush, and maybe even her first heartbreak. She will need me.

I envision all of these milestones both with an elated sense of hope and a terrifying pang of fear, the paralyzing panic that I could possibly miss any one of them.

Frankly, I’m still not sure what it is about my (completely innocuous) 46th birthday that is bringing all of this to the surface.

Maybe that damn brain tumor has catapulted me into a midlife crisis.

Maybe it’s the sobering realization that there are so many years left before my last child will officially be raised.

Maybe it’s the fact that people around me, people my age, people younger than me even, are succumbing to fatal illnesses.

Maybe it’s that I have a disproportionately high number of beautiful girlfriends who I love dearly despite the fact that not one has even hit 40 yet. Not one has parts that jiggle. Not one has had to take up residence in her chiropractor’s office.

Maybe it’s the undeniable yearning that—someday, far in the future—I will get to embrace sticky-handed, cherub-faced little people who call me grandma.

But first, of course, there’s the task of navigating my own sticky-handed kid through grade school.

As I ruminate on all that is 46, the truth is, I really don’t feel that…old. But for me, crossing the murky threshold has exposed a whole host of uncertainties and insights.

Forty-six is the solemn realization that if things start to go downhill, it should not be completely unexpected.

Forty-six insists on the absence of shock if ominous news were to come from the doctor’s office.

Forty-six signifies an increasingly common—and unequivocally alarming—trend of reading about an acquaintance’s untimely passing in my Facebook feed.

Forty-six represents the disheartening realization that the vast majority of my doom and gloom worries are completely beyond my control.

Whether I like it or not, 46 has arrived. And with any luck, the number will ultimately prove to be nothing more than just a brief pause in the middle. A bleep on the radar screen of a (lengthy) well-lived life. An opportunity to reflect, to adjust, to take stock of all of my blessings.

So as I blew out those 46 candles on my birthday cake tonight (in a single breath, no less! Take that, lung cancer!), I channeled all of my positive energy into the time-honored tradition of making a special wish. And with all the faith and hope and courage I could muster, I wished, quite simply, for more candles to come.

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