Hair and Boobs: What I Know for Sure at 39

06/24/2015 09:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

On the morning of my 39th birthday, I was grateful for two things: my hair and my boobs.

There were other things too, of course -- the way my son buried his little face in my hair at 5:30 in the morning. The way he and my husband planned how to surprise me with breakfast and cake and presents.

But my hair and boobs were on my mind the most because in the week leading up to my birthday, one friend had to shave her head and another friend found out she might be losing her breasts.

I sort of hate to feel gratitude like this -- it seems like such a selfish feeling. Like by being grateful I am saying that I am grateful that YOU have this horrible disease and not me. I am grateful that I have my hair, but too bad about yours. That's clearly not what I want to feel. So rather than grateful, I feel cautious, suspicious: Maybe this thing didn't get me -- yet -- but the next thing will. If it's not cancer or divorce or a sick child, it will be something else. There's always something else.

I am 39. I still don't get a lot of things about life. Eyeliner. Why boys don't call when they say they would. I am pretty crappy at marriage and I am winging this parenting thing every day. I am baffled by love and most cake recipes. I am at a crossroads in my career. I had hoped for more certainty by now, more wisdom, more knowledge of how the universe works.

Instead I am finding that the only thing I am certain of is the randomness of it all. Of the many, many ways life can be lived and the many, many ways life can turn and change in a second, without much consideration for what I have planned. A chance doctor's appointment, a weird lump, a driver with a bad morning, an airline pilot with the wrong antidepressant, a loose screw in the machine -- none of it is up to me.

All of this is unsettling, especially when the bad stuff is happening to people I know. But the bad stuff makes me even more aware of how we are in this together, how over time we all grow our own tribes -- some distant, some not. I never dreamed of having a tribe so far-flung and random as the one I have now. The happiness, the everyday silliness, the heartache, the pain, the diseases -- it is all so close to me as I scroll through names of friends and acquaintances. Years and years ago, without all of this fancy technology, none of their pain would have been mine -- and none of their joy, either. I would not have known about shaved heads or lumpy breasts or broken marriages, or sick babies. But now I do, and I can't un-know any of it. The news pulls me in and I feel helpless in its face.

I am 39. And I still feel ill-equipped to react like a grown-up. I still don't know the right words, I feel awkward and tongue-tied when my distant tribe needs comfort. I want to be there - but instead all I do is read their bad news and sit with it, taste its gritty, bitter chunks, feel its sadness, its stupidity, its unfair, luck-of-the-draw freakishness. I hate it. I don't feel grateful that this time it's not me -- I feel pissed that it's someone at all. I still foolishly believe that these things can't happen to me, when I KNOW that they can. My heart aches for my friends and the rest of me feels numb and paralyzed with fear for them and fear of what and when comes next.

As I was appreciating my hair and my boobs that morning, I was also thinking about how little we can ask from the universe. Pretty much just this -- to be kept whole. Healthy. Close to sweet baby skin. And that's about it. Wishes about careers or money seem like a luxury. So what?

So here we are. I am 39. I have learned nothing. I have boobs. And hair. And not much else is certain.

Zsofia McMullin is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Full Grown People, and The Butter. She blogs at Hunglish Girl where this post first appeared and tweets as @zsofimcmullin.