I’m creeping up on kind of a milestone birthday. In a few short weeks, I’m going to be celebrating my 50th birthday. Half a century! It doesn’t even seem possible but barring anything completely unforeseen, it will be happening on February 19.
I’m sure this is the time of life when most people start looking around them, re-evaluating their life decisions, career moves, relationships long ago and more recent, friendships, life choices – all of it. I’m no different. I’m doing the same thing but I have a few rather specific circumstances that are making my half century reflections slightly different than most.
The first circumstance, the less obvious one, is the fact that I became a widow at 30. Now, that in and of itself is life changing any way you look at it, but for me, it ushered in a decade of pure exploration and discovery that was at times overwhelmingly painful, sometimes fun, a little bit scary, more than a little bit exciting and ultimately exhausting until the unexpected happened: I was OK.
At a time in life when most of my friends were settling down, having kids and living the carpool life, I was living alone in a house I bought just for me. I was living my life with energy, excitement and more activity than I could sometimes manage. I was being actively creative, writing or painting most every day. My career had its stumbles (don’t they all) but I made them work for me and somehow I kept moving forward.
I didn’t re-marry like everyone thought I would. I had a few significant relationships but they weren’t what I would call keepers for lots of reasons. I obtained four rescue felines. I settled into things like silence, independence, solitude and lifelong friendships that in many ways saved my life. The journey that most people go on once their kids are grown; their marriages are no longer new (or simply no longer in some cases) and their careers have crested – I went on that journey in my thirties. I traveled alone. I had adventures. I was scared and I cried a bit, but I was also determined to come out of the experience knowing myself better, understanding myself more deeply and knowing myself more intimately.
I’m here to tell you that I did all of that. And then some!
I wrote about it in my journal as I lived it almost every single day. I found myself at 40 feeling like I knew things I would never had known if my life had taken a different path. In some ways, I saw my solitude as a gift. How many women have the time and luxury of spending their thirties in self-discovery instead of raising kids, (or husbands)? A tragedy gave me that freedom and I believed in some crazy way that Chuck, my husband, was guiding me through it all shaking his head at my more outlandish stunts, being my co-pilot when I made stupid decisions and did things that weren’t very safe, laughing along with me when I had fun and exploring the world through my eyes.
My forties, as a result, were pretty damn good. I’d done the work, I made the mistakes and I survived to tell the tale.
I found myself living my life without regrets and without much fear. I had the usual work stresses and crazy dramas, but I felt equipped to work my way through them using the tools I’d cultivated along the way. I felt pretty good about myself – in most ways. I still battled some stubborn demons that had their hooks in me pretty deep, but I had a good life. Around the age of 45, I started to notice some strange things going on with my body. But after exploring a lot of options with a lot of doctors, I was told I was healthy.
I believed whatever was happening to me physically could be conquered by eating better, exercising more (or at all) and giving up the obsession I had with my failing health. I felt lucky. I wanted to do more, things I’d been putting off as I explored the potential health issues. I told myself that now was the time.
I planned another solo trip – this time a trip of a lifetime! A long-time dream. I wanted to go to Italy.
I found the perfect tour for me – a woman who curated a trip for women who wanted to explore Tuscany like a local. I booked immediately! It was like this trip had been sent to me by fate and I knew it was going to be a dream come true. (You can find out more about the trip I went on by visiting www.findyourselfintuscany.com – go there. You won’t regret it.)
I did something I’d never done and booked my trip to Florence first class. I was going to do this trip right. I may have spoiled myself forever by making that decision but it definitely got my trip off on the right foot. I was amazed at how comfortable, stress-free and easy it was to fly first class. “Another reason to dislike rich people,” I remember thinking to myself with a chuckle.
My tour guide, Lisa Condie, was like a travel wizard who had arranged for every detail. She knew when I would be arriving, she was able to help me figure out an issue with my cell phone data service that I found wasn’t working upon my arrival in Florence. Lisa came to meet me at the Hotel Pierre where I’d be staying for the first leg of my trip and we walked to her apartment, while the rain fell on the cobblestone streets around us, where I got to see how actual residents lived. I saw neighborhoods, laundry hanging outside being hastily pulled inside from the rain, women dressed to the nines scurrying around in impossible heels as if the fear of falling was something that other people had.
I remember having a hard time keeping up with Lisa’s pace. She was a fast walker to begin with and it was raining. I did my best but walked at least a step behind her the whole way to her apartment but I stumbled on, pretending it was just me not being used to walking so fast and Lisa being an obvious expert. When we got to her apartment and got about solving my digital difficulties, I was happy for the little rest before we would trudge back through the rain to the Hotel Pierre to await the arrival of the rest of our tour group.
I remember being too excited about the tour and meeting my new friends for the week to feel too concerned about how strange my legs were feeling. We had a walking tour scheduled with one of Lisa’s ex-pat friends who also lived in Florence and was the local art history, Florentine expert extraordinaire who gave the city’s most sought after tours. Alexandra Lawrence was as good as her reputation and then some! She made the tour not only informative, but also fun. I was feeling the fatigue creep up on me by the end of the walking tour, but I pushed it down because there was dinner to look forward to and I wouldn’t miss that for anything. “Ignore it, and it will go away,” I thought. I was the youngest in our group of 8 and I’d be damned if I was going to let being a little tired hold me back.
On another day, with another destination in mind, this time to the Oltrarno or “other side” of Florence to take a walk up a long hill through a rose garden to a church that offered some of the most amazing views of Italy. I’d gone to bed early, to get some extra rest to help make sure I’d be rearing to go the following morning. We were going to see the Church of San Miniato al Monte – at the top of the hillside – where the best view of all of Florence could be seen along with one of the most amazing Romanesque churches in all of Italy. Lisa told us there was a cemetery outside San Miniato that was beyond beautiful. I couldn’t wait to see it. I love cemeteries.
On the way up the hill was when it finally happened.
I had kept up pretty well during the whole long walk across Florence and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I was walking up the pathway to the church with the ladies when I could no longer feel my legs. When I looked down, my ankles were turning in on themselves. I remember thinking, “That’s strange. My legs look like they’re made of silly putty.” I let the ladies know something was happening to me. I needed help to sit down. Luckily there was a little fountain nearby with a stone wall around it where I could sit. I barely made it before I was about to fall, but I made it. And I urged the tour group to go on ahead without me. There was no way I could walk any further just then. I’d be there when they came back down and I’d rest and hope to be feeling better. They fussed over me, and kindly offered to sit with me, but I knew I was about to lose it and I needed to be alone when it happened.
I sat on the side of that little fountain and cried. Tourists with selfie sticks (the bane of my existence in Italy, they were everywhere!) cozied up close to me to get their perfect shot with the fountain in the background and I was thinking, “Seriously? You can’t see a nice American girl having a breakdown over here? Back off!” But I didn’t say anything. I just cried. Then I texted my best friend at home and my sister. I snapped a few photos. The view was truly breathtaking. I supposed that if one had to find oneself crippled on a hillside anywhere in the world, this particular hillside was probably one of the best. I gathered myself. And prayed. I’m not sure what I believe, and I hadn’t prayed in a very long time but I needed something to ask for help in that particular situation and it just kind of happened. I prayed I’d be able to walk when my friends came back for me.
And I could walk when my friends came back. We walked slowly and carefully, my new friends all fussed and worried over me. I was scared to death but didn’t want anyone to really know that so we grabbed some gelato at a shop at the bottom of the hill and walked slowly back through Florence to the Hotel Pierre where I would flop on my bed and cry a bit more. I laid on my tiny bed with my legs vertically up the wall (“legs up the wall cures all” I remembered someone telling me once…it’s not true.)
I knew, on that hillside in Florence, that I couldn’t pretend anymore that something terrible wasn’t happening to me. I wasn’t just out of shape, there was something very, very wrong with me. I had trouble walking for the rest of the trip but one of my compatriots, Jeannette from Las Vegas, was recovering from an ankle injury so she had to walk slow too and take frequent breaks. I have never been more grateful for a stranger with an ankle injury in all of my life. She made me feel better about taking things slow.
I missed out on a few things for the remainder of the trip because I knew my body wasn’t behaving normally. I resented it. But I didn’t know what else to do. I will always be grateful for my new friend Cathy, from Florida, who took pictures of the hike the group took at Cinque Terre – one of the things I decided I just wasn’t willing to risk trying. I didn’t want to be stranded on the side of any more hills. I didn’t want to hold up the rest of the group either. Cathy sent me her pictures. The ladies told me afterwards that I probably made the right decision. The hike, though gorgeous, was rigorous and not likely something I would have been able to manage.
You know how the rest goes.
I came home, saw a neurologist who sent me for my first MRIs ever and a few days after that I was informed I probably had multiple sclerosis and I would need to schedule myself for a spinal tap to confirm my diagnosis. That was really fun! (That wasn’t even a little bit fun and I hope to never have to go through that again). I definitely had MS – and this whole crazy journey began.
But now what? How does one have a proper mid-life crisis if one can’t figure out how to have new adventures, see new places, make new plans, or start living an authentic life after 50?
The truth is, I was already living an authentic life. I was enjoying the fruits of my self-discovery. I’d stopped trying to be something I thought people wanted and started being someone I wanted to be. I had a rosy outlook for what 50 would bring. I didn’t fear it or dread it or any of that. Since Chuck’s death my philosophy about getting older became frightfully simple: Any birthday one has the privilege of having is a good birthday to have. Period.
I’m not even experiencing the angst I would have expected from someone like me, who is horribly vain. I don’t care about looking older. I just don’t care anymore. I barely care about any of the things I used to care about – things that I thought, in many ways, defined me. I don’t care about how people perceive me, how old I look, how unfashionable my shoes have become or how often I leave the house without a stitch of makeup. I just don’t care anymore.
What happens when you stop caring about all the things you thought you cared about so much?
How do you have a proper mid-life crisis (or mid-life epiphany – whichever you prefer) when you are consumed with the fear that you might not get any better; you might not ever be able to walk very far (certainly not so far as one would have to walk to properly explore the world); or, you might not want to be awake long enough to have new adventures?
How do you chart a course for the next phase of your so-called life when you can’t DO what people normally DO to make the most of their “golden years?”
My guess is that you just don’t. You don’t try to figure it out and you certainly don’t make plans to explore the great big wide world, walking around Florence until there are holes in your shoes.
My guess is that you have to look inside. Figure out how to be OK with the reality of what life has given you. You have to figure out how to focus on gratitude for all of the obvious advantages, goodness and love the universe has gracefully delivered to your life (along with a few super shitty curve balls) and live the best version of this life that you can, even if it’s not what you imagined it would be.
I learned once before how to treasure a life I didn’t want. I have to believe I will do that again. Maybe that’s my secret super power that I will embrace once again, as I stare down the big 5-0.
(PS. If you’d like to read an amazing book that tells the tale of how Lisa Condie came to create her company, and quite literally found her true self in Tuscany, get her book, “I Found Myself in Tuscany!” https://www.amazon.com/Found-Myself-Tuscany-Lisa-Condie/dp/0692812121/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1484530315&sr=1-1&keywords=i+found+myself+in+tuscany It’s a fantastic read. You won’t regret it.)