I'm 40 (Inhale)

Turning 40 is not the image I had in my head when I was 30, or 20, or 10... I remember my parents turning 40, one month apart, both in the same summer. I saw my mom and dad as young and impressive yet everyone kept teasing them about how old they were – silly cards and black balloons filled the screened-in porch of our lake cottage. My mom was the most beautiful person I ever knew, and she didn’t look any different on this day. Her blonde hair, cut straight across, landed just below her shoulders. We probably went for a boat ride, and she wore her all white swimsuit that showed off her glistening tan legs. My dad hung his arm around my mom as they posed for a photo in front of the stone wall leading up to the house. If this was 40, I wanted it. I wanted all of it.

And I got it - the husband, the family, the house. 10 years of boat rides and high chairs and birthdays flew by like a shooting star, with an exploding arc and the faint trail it leaves behind, making you question if it actually ever happened. Did I really see it? Or was it an illusion?

This year I wake up in a house that was meant to hold our entire family for at least the next 10 years, until the boys go to college or move out. I didn’t expect that one of us would be gone already, living down the street in an apartment. I didn’t expect that I would be teaching my boys about love and divorce and relationships. I didn’t expect to feel so blind-sided by the path – because the pretty family photographs can’t possibly illuminate the journey. My house boasts family photos on the walls and self-help books on the nightstands. I have broken kitchen drawers from kids pulling too forcefully, and broken dishes from many late night arguments.

If I look at the pain and joy over the last 10 years, it’s hard to describe the happiness and fulfillment I feel today. I would think being divorced, in therapy, sober - would mean a completely depressing existence. It certainly doesn’t sound like success – and if you had told me 10 years ago, on my 30th birthday, while I was pregnant with my first baby, that this is where I would be at 40, I definitely would have cried out in disbelief. It sounds like I screwed everything up. I failed, let everyone down, and now have to pay the price.  

So how then? How is it possible for me to be so happy, so hopeful, and so full of gratitude that I can’t imagine a better way to complete the past and start the next forty?

The greatest lesson I’ve learned in life is that my path is not my plan. I can’t hold onto anything. Nothing is mine – not even my own boys. I get to guide them, teach them, and observe them in awe, but the path God has set for them is not up to me. I am a witness to their journey, and hopefully I can honor that position.

Traversing a path that I never thought I’d be on has given me faith – and faith has removed the burden. Because despite the way my life looks on paper, or in a conversation, or in the family photograph, everything is actually ok – maybe even better. I would not have moved closer to a true understanding of who I am if the pieces I thought defined me had not been stripped away – my collection of identity markers, like marriage, a house, college funds for the boys, motherhood, daughterhood, womanhood – the fight for perfection at every role.

When I signed the divorce document, I was also signing an admission of my personal failure – because I let myself believe that my marriage was also ME. And each time I defined myself according to a role, I systematically increased the pain and self-loathing when they slipped out of my grasp.

I don’t think you go low just to stay there, or to be punished. I think you go low in order to understand your ability to rise.

Now I can define myself by my truest nature – for example, my reaction to grief. The loss of myself and my marriage – and the discovery of the undeniable in the process. How I react when things don’t go my way. How I pray when I have nothing left to ask for - except to be shown more of the truth.  

In the mirror today, I see 40 in my eyes. And while it’s not wisdom – not yet – it’s also not delusion. My eyes are no longer glassy and puffy from daily alcohol intake over the last 10 years. They aren’t trying to hide something or run away. They are bright, and maybe a little reckless. They are free because there is nothing left to hang on to – the peeling has revealed an indestructible part that can’t be taken away. At 40, I am literally starting the second half of my life – without a crutch, and without the mask. And it feels really fucking good.