Too Young to be 40

by Kathleen Purcell 

It's not just that my knees are rough no matter how much lotion I apply, or that the skin covering my elbows droops like a worn-out sock. It's not just that the hair on my head is thinning while the hair in other places grows thicker, or that parts of my body sag and protrude in ways only surgery can reverse. What rankles about turning 40 is that, even as my body conspires to fail, my mind is reaching peak efficiency. So I'm falling apart, and I know it.

Unlike my friends who herald the passing of each year as one more nail in the coffin, I've always found something to appreciate about growing older. On my 21st birthday, I celebrated adulthood. When I turned 30, I gleefully cast aside the insecurities of my younger days. At 35, I felt strong and empowered.

Then last June I celebrated my 40th birthday. It was a quiet celebration; I'm not so energetic these days. I'm not as eager to take on new challenges, not as quick to rebound from a hard day's work, not as perky, cheerful, or optimistic as in my younger days. I'm sure there's something wonderful about turning 40, but I don't know what it is. Quite frankly, I don't have enough experience to be getting old.

My grandmother lived to be 90. I expect my mother will live to 100, and I plan to celebrate my 110th birthday. Given my expectations, it seems pointless to fret about turning 40. These days actresses pose nude at 40. Women bear children in their 50s, and athletes continue their careers well into middle age. Turning 40 should have little effect on my active lifestyle. Despite this comforting scenario, my birthday chafes.

And so do my jeans. My feet hurt and my elbow aches after tennis. I have arthritis in my hands, moles on my back, and hair growing from my chin. To maintain the illusion of youth I color my hair, bleach my upper lip, and tweeze, pluck, or shave hair from parts of my body that have never known hair. When I step away from the mirror the illusion holds, but tenuously.

Youth is a gift bestowed in equal measure upon sage and fool alike. We can neither negotiate its passing nor refuse to give it back. It disappears of its own accord, fading so gradually the process is imperceptible. One day you're the youngest worker in the office, the next day you're someone's mentor. It's appalling.

I know it's impossible, but I want my youth back. I want to drink margaritas until dawn, instead of nodding off at 9:00 PM with a diet cola in my hand. I want to perch atop the hood of my car with a dainty hop, instead of scrambling aboard to the protesting creaks and groans of the shock absorbers. I want to walk into a boutique and hear the sales clerk address me as Miss, instead of Ma'am.

Isn't there someplace where I can get a partial refund of my birthdays? I'd like to return the aches and pains, the cumulative effects of gravity, and the diminishing eyesight. I'd like to retain the credibility and authority that comes with age, and the life skills earned over 40 years. I'd keep my children, my husband, my friends, and my career. And I'd like to hold onto my home equity, my savings account balance, my stock portfolio, and my retirement account.

It's a paradox: the passage of time has made me weaker physically, but stronger mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. I gain wisdom as easily as I gain weight. My life is enriched with the blessings earned over half a lifetime. If only I could stay awake to enjoy them.

I didn't get many presents for my birthday, so if I could get a little of my youth back it would make a nice gift. It would be like having my cake and eating it, too. Right now I can't eat real cake; I have to watch my cholesterol.

Kathleen Purcell is a professional newspaper columnist and an active participant in several Internet writing groups.

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