September 12, 2018 by 8junebugs
“Lordy, lordy, Butch is 40!”
I distinctly remember the Big Damn Deal my family made of getting older. For my mom, it was a chance to celebrate her family, which was her raison d’etre if ever she had one. But there was always an undertone of doooooom. You had those Maxine cards with the scraggly haired old lady in dark glasses clapping back at some whippersnapper, plus jokes about canes and walkers and erectile dysfunction.
“It’s all downhill from here” was the cheerful theme after age 29. And maybe it seemed true.
When I was in my 20s, I had the pleasure of working with people — in particular, with women — who were young enough to be peers but older enough to have young kids and mortgages. They were strong and funny and snarky and smart and NOT AT ALL AFRAID of being over 30. Or over 40. Or maybe they were and they never told me, but to this day, they are my vanguard, my sneak peek into what lies ahead as I take on 40-something and squint at 50 off in the distance.
And if I’ve never talked to you about the over-50 and over-60 women in my crew and their fierceness and strength and humor…well, then you’re the only one. I am surrounded on all sides by badass women of all ages, shapes, colors, and creeds, a privilege I try not to take for granted.
As a result, I don’t give a shit about being over 40 and I’m reliably insufferable on the subject of aging in general. Anyone who jokes about being over the hill around me gets some serious side-eye, for better or worse.
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking that focusing on the inevitable slide down “the hill” and into the grave distracts us from what really happens after 40. Summiting that hill is much less about my own mortality than about the sheer velocity of loss and the broadening of grief on this side of it.
I started crying in the driver’s seat today. “It’s Quiet Uptown” came on (Gray is back on a Hamilton kick) and the immunity I worked so hard to build by listening to that song over and over for a while just collapsed under the weight of the Hamiltons trying to live after their son has died.
See, a kid I know just died on Sunday. It was a car accident. It was in my hometown. It was head-on. And now he’s gone.
Except he’s not really a kid. At 41, I recognize that he’s as much older than I as he was in 1984, when his family moved to our town and nearly every girl in my school memorized their phone number. He was one of four brothers, you see, and they were all amazing in their own ways. They were also absolutely gorgeous, and their parents were so nice, and they had an adorable little sister, and the donuts at the shop they opened were so good and such a part of my family’s routine that after we moved, a friend would FedEx us boxes of their crullers. (I don’t recommend this. Respect the ephemeral nature of the donut.)
That’s the thing about my small hometown. You don’t just know people. You know families. Half the kids in my class had siblings in my older cousin’s class. Half had younger siblings in my brother’s class. Some had both. (I’m looking at you, Aldriches.)
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve waxed nostalgic about growing up that way. It’s complicated — I also love where I live and never want to leave, and that means accepting that the Town ain’t as small as Cornwall, no matter how often I run into neighbors in random places. I haven’t lived there at all in 18 years, and even then it wasn’t for long — just a brief stop between CA and DC to remind myself that I was too old to live contentedly with my mother.
And so now, because I’m so far removed, the 7-year-old version of me occupying a small space in my heart can’t believe the beautiful older boy is gone. My heart hurts for my old friend having lost his big brother.
On top of that, though, now there’s the part of me that’s lost a parent and can’t shed enough tears for this man’s young son. Now there’s the parent in me aching because one of the moms of my youth has lost one of her amazing boys. And there’s the friend and neighbor in me who knows this tragic accident just left a gaping hole in the same beloved community that raised me.
I didn’t really know this man. I only ever knew him as a young girl knows an older boy, and that more than 30 years ago. And yet, life experience alters grief’s tide and the waves come crashing as they do and as they will, because humans are here and built to love. The older you get, the deeper the love and the broader the community, the more layered and nuanced the sadness in the world.
For my circle of friends, I was ahead of the pack on losing a parent. Two years later, we lost Memere. We lost Graham’s mom last year, and my two closest girlfriends from high school have now each lost a parent. (That’s three of my “extra” parents — each of them had known me since high school.)
In the last few years, finding the right words for a dear one who is grieving has become a worryingly regular thing. This is the cadence of life after a certain point — we are increasingly grief-adjacent. The losses mount, and the understanding of the impact each person has on countless others grows. And as we lose more of our loved ones, empathy for others’ grief turns into sympathy and settles deeper in our hearts.
When you’re 8 and your grandfather dies, you miss his smile and his voice and you know your parent is sad. When you’re 33 and your grandmother dies, you can look to your right and your left and see the legacy she — and the husband she lost so long ago — leave behind in your aunts, uncles, and cousins. You know enough history to marvel at all that they built together, all the changes they witnessed, all the love they left behind.
You begin to develop the capacity to see the scope of a life, the depth of a family, the meaning of community. The sadness of the 8-year-old is no less true, but it’s like the sting of a wasp that hurts like hell but can heal well in time.
After 40, the holes take longer to close up, even as we become better at treating them. I was in my 30s before I realized how many of my cousins didn’t have memories of Pepere (an idiotic mistake on my part, but I have been known to avoid doing math). Were you to ask me today if it’s worse to have lost my mom when I was 31 or for my sons to have never known her, the hole without memories to fill it seems, to me, the bigger sadness.
And so I find my own experience of being “over the hill” isn’t fraught so much with the physical peril of aging, of facing up to my own mortality, as with the emotional effect of navigating more loss, faster, even as the losses start to feel more devastating.
Even from afar.
Rest in peace, Deane. You were a really great guy and I am so sorry that you’re gone.