Despite the frequency of friends’ funerals in my parents’ social schedule, their perennial good spirits are undimmed. I can’t help but wonder how they do it. As I reel from a bout with the Fates at their Mean-Girls-worst, I ask Mom, “Is life always like this after fifty?”
She cheerfully reassures me with the wisdom of her seventy-five years, “Oh no. It goes in cycles. You’re just having a bad round.”
Bad round indeed. I think I’ve aged more than the requisite four years in the leap from forty-eight to fifty-two. My kids left home for college. I’m menopausal. George Bush won the election, 9/11 changed life forever, and my friend Hove assures me that Armageddon is not an “if” but a “when.”
In maudlin moments, I yearn for life to return to normal, but what, exactly, does that mean? The anxieties that rocked me in my thirties and forties are behind me, safely resolved. From my current perspective, those days look positively rosy. Is “normal” then, a fictional state of smooth and easy fabricated by hindsight?
In trying to delude myself into a sense of control as life makes it clear I do not hold the reins, I have become a mite compulsive. Where I say “a mite,” Dave would argue for “anal.” While I know better than to take he-of-messy-counters-and-buried bureaus as my guide, even I find it worrisome when I catch myself counting footsteps during my solitary morning walk.
Smooth-skinned beeches and oaks shade my street. Warblers try out tunes that might lure in a mate. I stride the asphalt ribbon threading among them, but I see and hear nothing. In the words of an old prayer, I walk sightless among miracles, counting. “Whoa! Up and out!” I berate myself. “Get out of your head and look up at the trees.”
Dutifully, I lift my chin to seek peace in the spread of leafy limbs. As if a switch from “count” to “pray” has been thrown, like an automaton I begin my recitation: “Thank you Lord for watching over my dearest Dave, my treasured kids, Mom and Dad, my sisters and nephews, my friends, my grieving friends, my sick friends, suffering people I’ve read about in the newspaper, the soldiers in Iraq, the refugees in Darfur…” I worry that I might leave someone out – I need to cover them all. It’s another compulsion, I know, but I feel helpless in the face of the world’s threats, and my litany is my talisman; I feel I’m doing something.
I press the Lord’s patience, yammering away, and as I ask His help in remaining open to His guidance, I can almost hear Him thunder, “Maybe if you’d shut up for a minute!”
He’s right, of course. I never shut up, at least not in my head. My calm expression masks, at any given moment, a stew of thoughts: lists, worries, and the morning newspaper’s rarely-glad tidings. When the harangue takes the form of a feverish dialogue between my worst and better selves, I feel like a referee, mentally holding at bay two punch-swinging sluggers.
The other day, I was cozy in bed, enjoying a well earned sleep-in when I was jolted awake by the slam of a drawer and 183 pounds of husband weighing on my feet.
“Hon? Hon! What are you doing?”
“I have to take my car in for servicing.”
“Do you have to sit on me? It’s Saturday.”
“I sit on the bed every day to put on my socks. I didn’t know your feet were there.”
Lea–Be-A–Jerk was incensed at Dave’s lack of consideration. She was shoveling fuel into the fires of indignation, remembering other mornings when Dave hit the snooze alarm two, maybe three times releasing some wailing violin or storming tympani to wake me again and again. Why couldn’t he slip noiselessly from the bed, striving not to disturb his peacefully slumbering wife?
Lea-Be-Nice could not be restrained; “Oh please! You’re impossible! You loll here until 7:00 while Dave wakes at 5:30 am, drives a forty-minute commute and works all day! Maybe it would be nice if you got up once in awhile to keep him company, or, heaven forbid, make him breakfast?! You make me sick!”
She’s right, she’s right. I hate myself.
I wonder at my internal ravings. Does everyone live like this? Can I blame it on menopause?
My friend Gail has cautioned, “Don’t judge your interiors by other people’s exteriors,” and I know there’s wisdom in that. Everyone else appears to be on top of things while I wail away inside, counting and bickering and scolding and worrying, yet I know that I, too, have a convincing public face. I’ve been told more than once, “You’re always so upbeat!” Indeed.
As I face fifty-three, and the dread morning news, I slip on my cheery mask and clamor for the Lord’s attention. I can almost hear His sigh of resignation as I launch into my list.