“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” Mark Twain
I read an article back in the summer called My middle-age dread. The article pissed me off, to be honest, the writer being more concerned with lamenting how cool she used to be rather than sharing anything particularly insightful about life in your forties. What did amuse me was the concept of death maths and reaching the point in life where the law of averages means you become closer to the end than the beginning. Statistically speaking my life expectancy is 83. I read that article one week before I turned 41.5. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘I am exactly halfway through.’
But why start the countdown so soon?
Next Wednesday I will be at a funeral. A friend’s mother. We will travel to the funeral in a converted Routemaster bus, the coffin in the bottom and us on the top deck. After the service we will party in a village hall decorated with palm trees, drink champagne and eat paella. My friend’s Mum died of a very rare cancer. She could expect about a year from diagnosis. That was six years ago. Since then she’s travelled in Burma and India. In July she and my friend were in Spain, swimming in the sea and feasting on paella.
Elsewhere, the mother in law of one of my dearest and oldest friends has just gone into a hospice. They are in the most dreadful countdown of all. But amidst it all my friend’s husband is still considering running two back to back marathons in the Sahara next weekend. He’s running for a charity his Mum is a trustee for. She wants him to stick to the plan.
When this woman first got sick last year my friend and I had one of those reality check conversations about what the next ten years are likely to have in store for many of our peer group. And it will be hard. Aging parents come at a time when you’re at what can be the toughest stage of your own life. Families are young and demanding, careers are changing gears to senior management, businesses are being nurtured, mortgages are in full throttle.
Life in your forties is tiring, but it’s also brilliant. You know yourself. You are building foundations for your future. For a time when someone might run a marathon for you, or decorate a church hall with palm trees. So you have the money and freedom to backpack round Burma in your seventies, even if you’re sick. For the time you inspire someone to think that they’re not halfway to the end but that they’ve still got all that life to live again.
Of course, I would be lying if I said I never had ‘fucking hell, I’m halfway through’ moments. I’m not a total Pollyanna! My confidence with my business, my friendships, my home, is as robust as it can get without being complacent. But I am not the same with relationships or sex.
I’m happy with the relationship status I bestow on my partnerships and don’t want any greater commitment than I have, but I sometimes fret that ‘what if I suddenly decide one day that I do want true love again, not just fondness, and I am too old’. I worry that I have left it too late in life to be exploring new sides of myself and often feel silly asking for what I really want when it comes to sex. I police what I say out of fear of fallout, then get cross that a situation is making me unhappy. I sit with partners and play out in my head things I will say, do or ask for, not always fully listening to the conversation we’re having but also not letting the words out. I put up with patterns that make me sad or chip away at the confidence I try to nurture.
I know I need to change this about myself. Only I can drive that process. And if I look at what I have achieved in other areas of my life, I know I have the spirit to. I just need to grasp the nettle. But that’s just something to work through. A big thing, but not an insurmountable thing. What I have absolutely no truck whatsoever with is the point that ran through the article I mentioned at the top of this piece about no longer being cool in your forties. Fuck that!
Life changes, it doesn’t become less cool. Cool is seeing my friends juggle all of the challenges of parenthood, raising brilliant little people who make me laugh constantly. Cool is the kitchen disco we have after they’ve gone to bed because why waste money on a babysitter when you could spend it on wine and cheese? Cool is sitting in a beer garden with a friend, talking out the challenges of self-employment. Cool is the smell of a new country when I step off a plane on a new job. Cool is running two marathons for your Mum. Cool is the party my friend is throwing for her Mum’s funeral.
Cool is situation appropriate, not age appropriate. Don’t do death maths, do life maths.