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Why isn’t there a midlife equivalent to the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting – that manual so many of us pored over during our child-rearing years. The one that gave us a heads-up as we stumbled through that stage in our lives and reassured us that it would all work out. Is What You Weren’t Expecting in Midlife somewhere out there?
Recently, I turned 59, and I look back on this decade with equal parts gratitude and complete bewilderment. These years brought waves of unexpected struggles into my life and it seems to be a common story among my middle-aged friends. They, too, have endured a barrage of difficult experiences: aging parents, startling health issues, heart-wrenching family rifts, twists and turns in the lives of our children, divorces, deaths and failures of all kinds. We commiserate with one another about feeling a bit sucker-punched around so many corners. (On the positive side, I did manage to surpass the age my father was when he suddenly died of a heart attack in 1980. He was 58.)
On the morning of my December birthday, I thought about the abrupt ending of my marriage, when I was just 51. That seismic upheaval scarred my sense of self and security, and buried my belief in a happily ever-after story line. At the time, I was sure it was the worst thing I would have to endure. It was only the beginning.
A long, detailed and difficult move to a condo from our family home felt more like a failed army in retreat than the launch of a new and exciting chapter in my life. It was a complete change in the genre of the story of me; like, halfway through a Jane Austen novel, Stephen King showed up.
This step was followed by a depressing journey through the world of online dating – spurred on by Hollywood movies and well-meaning friends. Self-esteem has a way of plummeting so deeply that it takes more than an algorithm to provide a lifeline to the lovelorn.
My 50s, in fact, felt like I’ve been on one of those moving sidewalks at the airport; no effort at all followed by an abrupt gap of stumbling, an attempt to regain my footing, followed by another smooth moving track of temporary relief.
I said goodbye to our family pet – Bodger the Weiner Dog – just shy of his 17th birthday. He had been the common bond in our family. Having had four legs, he was the one stable thing. When he died, he took another piece of my broken heart with him. My precious Mom died when I was 57. This was not unexpected and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were blessed in the peaceful and gentle way she left our world. But still, I was devastated. She lived near me most of my life and her birthday was one day before mine. We always celebrated together as though it was the same special date.
Just as I thought I had weathered the storm of middle-age woes, I was challenged once again, this past year with a couple of extra ones. Having grown up in the era before sunscreen, this fair-skinned girl was predisposed to basal cell carcinoma – skin cancer. It bit me on the nose. Extensive surgery to remove the affected area, and plastic surgery to restore my face, was a setback. But it didn’t come close to the concurrent family tragedy that challenged us all. My sister, who had struggled for many years with progressive multiple sclerosis, and suffered an entire year on life support, died one week after my nose surgery. I could not travel to be with her in her final days nor attend her funeral. I continue to wake up each day, to the disbelief then realization, that she is gone.
So far, this sounds like I’m counting my misfortunes, instead of my blessings. But for me, it is a way of putting the pain to paper and hoping some of it stays there; leaving my heart a little less burdened and perhaps making space for new and positive things. I’ve always turned to writing to get through challenging times. It’s one of my forms of therapy. Not so long ago, a lady in a flower shop asked me what I was doing for the day. I said, “It’s my birthday, so I’m getting my hair done and going out to dinner with my son.” I added that it was the last time I’d turn fifty-something. She said, “Well I turned 60 a few years ago, and my dear, I’ve never felt better in my life.” The other women in the shop chimed in with similar accolades for the sensational sixties.
My mother taught me that every day is a gift. I pledge to be more grateful for each one. Also, I’m going to write a book called, What to Look Forward to in Your Best Years Yet. I have the greatest of expectations.
Charlotte Phillips lives in White Rock, B.C.