Wow, I’ve looked forward to this post all month and now that it’s here I’m finding it difficult to write. You see, today is my birthday—my fortieth birthday, to be exact. Nope, writing it out didn’t make it look any less daunting. My 40th birthday. It’s a day I’ve dreaded for a long time. Until now.
I can remember when my mom turned 40. Her brother sent her a bunch of black rubber helium-filled balloons. They seemed a contradiction, there rotating in space, floating happily, straining against their white ribbon tethers. The pièce de résistance was a mylar balloon with a picture of the Grim Reaper on its front, drawn in white against the black background. The reaper stood at the bottom of the hill on the right side, waiting. “Over the Hill” was plastered across the top of the balloon.
“What are those for?” I asked.
“My birthday,” she said. “They’re supposed to be funny.”
“Oh.” Maybe she laughed, but I didn’t.
It seemed a horrible thing to do to someone. Why would you want to make someone feel old? To bring notice that there might not be as many years ahead are there are behind?
More than a decade later, my 28th birthday rolled around a couple of years after I started grad school. I had grown close with an undergraduate in my group, he and his friends were kids 8 years my junior. His roommate wanted to throw a “40 40s” party and, in order to maintain thematic integrity, deemed it my 40th birthday. The concept was not lost on me, but being the oldest guy in the room to begin with didn’t help my ego in the slightest. AND the drinks were absolutely disgusting.
Now it really is my turn to be 40 and for years I’ve dreaded this moment. For what? Why? Because my remaining days are numbered, like I said before?
Newsflash. I’ve been in the throes of an existential crisis ever since I can remember. My remaining days being numbered isn’t a new concept for me. Oh whatever will I do?
I know, I thought. I’ll just take a trip by myself, go anywhere I want to go. I’ll make a week of it. This offered some comfort. I considered places to go. Chicago, maybe. No, the little shit that gave me my first 40th birthday party lives there now. Florence? No, that’s way too expensive and there’s not enough time to plan it well.
Then, a few weeks ago I had another thought. Why not just be happy with it? Why dread it?
“It sure beats the alternative,” some older people say. The middle finger of my mental hand instantly flicks up at that one.
At some point everything shifted. Maybe it was my psyche repairing itself early. I don’t know what it was but I’ll tell you, I’ve never felt freer and it’s been a wondrous, happy day for me.
I’m throwing my own 40th birthday party. I’m surrounding myself with friends and family and I’m subjecting them to an aging nerd theme. Lots of Pacman. Mario. Superfriends. Star Trek. Star Wars. Doctor Who.
The truth is, no one knows when their ‘over the hill’ moment occurs. It’s one of those stupid things people screw with you over, like…
“Boxers or briefs?”
“Boxers,” you say.
“Oh,” they say.
“No, briefs. Briefs! Wait, what’s the right answer?”
There is no right answer, it’s just a total mindf–k.
Will I make it to 80? Signs don’t look good. Cancer and diabetes are prevalent in my family history and I smoked for several years and I’m overweight. But no one really knows when they hit their 50% mark. It’s far past the time I stop fretting about things I can’t control.
I have my own ‘hill’ picture, drawn years ago by students in the lab, and I’ve attached it to this post. I haven’t decided yet if I’m Quixote, the windmill, Sisyphus, or the boulder. Maybe I’m the hill itself. Maybe I’m just the color blue. And then again, maybe I’m not any of them. Symbols, meaning, no meaning, it’s all just mental chatter.
Why on earth did it take me so long to figure that out?
So here I am, in my fortieth year. Oh, no. Whoops. My fortieth birthday marks my completion of forty years. After today I’m in my forty-first year.