On an evening last May, my friend and I sat in one of the plushest bars in Manhattan sipping white orchid Martinis, a prohibitively expensive drink we indulge in when there is something to celebrate. This time, it was her 47th birthday, and while I set out to toast her endeavors and good health, the occasion turned a little soggy.
"I'm almost 50," my still-gorgeous and very accomplished friend said despondently.
She spit out the last word as if a hornet had just landed in her mouth. Her panic of living beneath the Damoclean sword of the mid-century mark was palpable. And I felt for her. My 47th birthday was also the pits. I was tossing about on a sea of erratic hormones and midlife regret, convinced that the impending milestone meant the beginning of the slide into decrepitude and death. But my consolation to her lay in a prediction from my own experience: her fear would, ironically, end at her 50th birthday. In fact, now that it's behind me, I can say that the only bad thing about turning 50 is, well, turning 50. When the sun comes up the morning after and shines on your sixth decade, the horizon is utterly brighter and full of promise. And here I am, at 51, certain that this is the best year yet. Sixty is still too far off to dread.
When I finished high school, I had no idea who I was or would become and it seemed that each day, another cataclysmic decision loomed. It is terrifying to realize that your life has yet to be lived, and to know that the choices you make could reverberate forever. My twenties were spent falling in and out of love, and toiling 80 hours a week in the newsroom. I was married at 31, and seven days before I turned 34 my first child was born. I remember almost nothing of the rest of my thirties because I was obliterated by fatigue and second-guessing my own wing-it style of parenting. These years arrived and passed in a blur because whatever identity I had was given over -- both willingly and unconsciously -- to raising my children.
My forties were the worst. I saw my youth begin to fade in aging's slo-mo tragedy. A few gray hairs sullied my glossy mane, and I noticed folds on my face that I swore weren't there the day before. I neglected my marriage and my friendships, my community and my ambition. Fortunately, my health was fine, but there were new strains in my hips and knees, and I could no longer hold more than a single gin and tonic or prance around in four-inch heels all day. At 47, I had an epic midlife crisis. I became obsessed with my disappointments -- financial, emotional and otherwise -- and what I believed I was losing, as if the future held nothing but blackness. My 50th birthday felt like an oncoming bullet train. I decided not to celebrate with great fanfare, as others had done. Instead, after an intimate dinner with a few close friends, I jetted off to Russia solo, to relive a voyage I had made frequently in my twenties. All I could do was wallow in memory.
But on my birthday, almost instantly, the great weight lifted.
I'm not sure if the years have offered me wisdom, but like every adult, I've been through the ringer. That's just what happens in a life spent raising children, working for a living, being broke and flush, facing every kind of responsibility, experiencing elation, despair and mostly, everything in between. "Happiness" as a state of being is not something I strive for or even believe in, but if you contend, as I do, that life is full of happy moments, then 51 is the age where you can finally see and appreciate them.
I welcome the onset of courage. Now it's easier to say "no" when the impossible is asked of me, and I no longer care if someone gets mad about it, or if they like me, hate me, love my writing or think I'm a hack. I know my good qualities, and understand my faults even better. When I experience personal or professional rejection, I brush off my boots and soldier on. There is no time for whining, only the urgency of maximizing these still-fruitful years. These are conclusions I have made with my own free will, earned day in and day out over 51 years of life, always gaining knowledge.
I'm fortunate that I finally have a strong marriage (though that was hard-won), and my kids have grown into fascinating, accomplished people. Yes, the facial lines are getting harder to camouflage and I have to exercise twice as much as when I was 25 to get the same results. I defiantly refuse to cross any dreams off my list but I have a realistic assessment of what I can demand of myself and others, and with whom I'd like to spend my precious time. Lately, I've seen too often how quickly a robust person can become a severely ill one. But for now, I'm healthy and I have the presence of mind to appreciate that fact, as well as my good luck to be born in a place and time where living to 51 is even possible. I have much to look forward to, and I wouldn't go back for anything -- except, maybe, a second slice of cake.