I turned 39 on June 2nd. It was a big deal for me.
I’ve long dreaded turning 39. I think I was telling myself I was dreading turning 40, but that was a lie. I’m not afraid of 40 – I’m excited for it, actually. It’s a badge I’m anxious to earn. But I’ve been scared shitless of 39.
My father died when he was 39, you see. He did not have what most people would consider a “good death”. He was a young man with a wife and two small children – barely in his thirties – when he was given a devastating diagnosis. He and his mother were both diagnosed at nearly the exact same time, with the exact same cancer; they were each given just months to live. In hindsight, it’s very clear that both of their deaths could have been easily avoided by not subjecting them to radioactive, carcinogenic procedures to treat their (hereditary) thyroid conditions. But in the early 80s oncology was a fledgling field, ya know…
My grandmother did die just months after her diagnosis; she was only 60 on New Year’s Day, 1987. My terminally-ill father had to bury her, and then he had to watch his own father drop dead six months later on her birthday, at 72.
And then he mustered something: call it a will to live. He held on for six more years trying to save his life – our lives – subjecting himself to all kinds of invasive medicine for a shot at a future with his family.
He seemed like a miracle in those years. He kept beating every odd. I – and the entire world around me – idolized him. He went into remission: the world cheered. He went to work every day with his bald head: the world cheered. His coworkers at the plant crafted legends about him climbing the stairs to the white collar offices fresh from chemo, slowly and deliberately…
He achieved greatness on every level. He gained weight back, grew his hair back; he jogged every morning and lifted weights in his bedroom while my sister and I got ready for school. He saved union contracts for Ford Motor Company with his patience and integrity, never diminished.
He coached kids and was a model father everywhere, all the time. A year before he died, he was promoted to become the youngest quality control manager at the plant ever – the same plant his own father had gone to work in as an immigrant 40 years before.
But he couldn’t beat it. In the end he died a brutal, gruesome, unfair, painful death. He suffered. He never complained, but he did suffer. And we watched it. As much as my mother tried to shield my sister and I from it, we saw it. At least, I saw it. I think over the years I tried to convince myself that I didn’t see it, but…
I have been starting to pull back the veil on my own truth these past few years, and it hurts. It hurts to know yourself.
The closer I got to 39, the more I began to realize that I didn’t really have a problem with getting older; I had a problem with getting older than my dad.
It’s like there was something hardwired in me that said that’s not allowed to happen.
And yet, here I am. It happened. I’m 39 now. I will never, ever think of myself as the font of wisdom and the model of responsibility and strength and the beacon of familial love that my father was – to me, and to everyone who knew him. And yet –
I am about to overtake his life experience.
(At least, in terms of years clocked…)
It’s been unsettling, obviously… Acknowledging that I’ve just finished living through the same years when my parents struggled so mightily with challenges I’ll never know (thank god). I’m now going forward into a chapter my father never saw, although he infamously told us all many times as he was dying that…
“Getting old is the plan.”
He was never going to get old. He had been dying slowly, for many years, and he knew it. And I knew it, too.
Did I make all the best decisions for him? For me? For us? I don’t know. Should I have? Should I keep caring? Or should I let it go? Stop letting it haunt me?
I am older now than he was in every single memory I have of him. And only getting older.
In a way, I feel like I don’t even really know myself, without his experience to guide me. The TW roadmap laid out before me…
Maybe I’ll always feel this way. I don’t know.
But I do know that it felt good to surround myself with my friends on my 39th birthday. They rallied around me in my favorite place and I am so grateful to all of them for it. I felt a little emotional and melancholy at times, but I definitely felt alive.
I am just getting old, I guess – according to plan (as much as there is one).