It is my belief that sometimes you have to write something that has nothing to do with your work in progress just so you can spill out all the thoughts standing in your story’s way. This post is one such example of that “necessary” writing.
Next week I will be forty years old.
It’s a big deal. Forty’s an age I have thought about for a large portion of my life, not in some sort of fear of aging, but, rather in a question as to whether I’d be granted that opportunity.
Forty is an age that was seared onto my soul almost twenty-eight years ago, when I learned that forty years might be all you ever get. It was all my father got. In 1988, on Thanksgiving, my father died at forty years old. On that day my mother became a widow and a single mother of two at forty years old. Forty, by my calculation, was a life-altering stage.
For a long, long time I imagined it was all the life I’d get. I mean, why not? When your first true love, your father, the strongest human alive, is so suddenly ripped from existence with no warning, why would you dare to expect more? As I mourned him I began to tell myself that he lived a full and complete life in his forty years.
I have carried an enormous boulder upon my back for a very long time. THE FORTY ROCK of sadness, guilt, and lost tomorrows. I’m going to let it go now. I’m going to let it roll down the mountain I’ve been climbing. Forty is no longer a destination. It is a stepping stone.
Here is the rock I’ll be stepping on:
My father was an admired and respected teacher. He was a deeply loved friend, son, brother, husband, and, of course, father. He took pride in his home, took joy in his family, and was an active participant in life.
Every morning he’d sit at our kitchen table with a cup of coffee, buttered rye toast, and the day’s New York Times. “All the news that’s fit to print!” I’d read aloud off the front page when I’d wake to find him there. Either he’d leave to pick up the carpooling bunch of coworkers on their way to Brooklyn, or a horn would beep from someone else’s car to pick him up. And each school day, like clockwork, at 4PM my father would come in the door, never bringing an ounce of work home — that was our time. Every night, when I’d go looking to find him for a goodnight hug and kiss I’d find him standing by the kitchen counter, scooping out some Breyer’s Vanilla Fudge Swirl for himself.
Unless it was Wednesday.
Wednesday nights were poker nights, rotated weekly from our basement to each of the other guy’s houses. When it was in our house kisses and hugs would happen before the game and I’d fall asleep smelling the smoke of cigarettes and pipes billowing up the stairs, and hearing laughter, ice clinking in glasses, and shouts of celebration and defeat.
On Saturday mornings my father slept late. My brother and I — after watching our recording of Star Wars and all the Saturday morning cartoons we could find, would run into our father’s bed and tackle him awake. This was completely justified for all of the “treatments” — kid-friendly versions of wrestling moves from his high school days — our father used on us whenever it delighted him to do so. Sunday mornings we went to church where every other parishioner seemed to know my parents and greeted them with a smile. In the afternoon, we’d feed the ducks, head to the comic book shop, then the deli, and finally back home where dad would make glorious salami sandwiches on twisted, seeded Italian bread which we would eat with ice filled glasses of coke and a side of potato chips.He coached our baseball and soccer teams, swam in the pool with us, took us to the beach, showed us how to shoot, how to fish, took us for long walks in the woods, played racquetball with friends, was a pathetic chef, but brilliant on the grill. He brought home books from his school library that were above my grade level but he knew I could read. He was sure we’d make millions from our baseball card collection, or some perfect find in all of our antique store hunts. He had a song for every word you uttered, and his voice was wonderful.
My father’s laugh and smile live on in the hearts and souls of all people who knew him. He took his short forty years and made them matter in the most important ways. From my perspective he lived one of the fullest lives I know. When friends and family speak to me of him their initial tears are almost always drowned in bouts of laughter from memories shared with the man they loved. I listened to their stories, I gathered up my own memories, I painted a picture of the giant missing from my life.
I started to tell myself forty years might be enough.
And, up until a couple of years ago I believed that, while my father must have been as flawed as any human being is, he had it all figured out. That he didn’t need any more time on this Earth to determine the meaning and purpose of life itself. He, the great wonder in my twelve years on this Earth, had all the answers to living. I was a child when he passed — who doesn’t think these things of their parents at that age? The thing is, when one of those parents is not around to demonstrate their own floundering in the icky mess of life, those beliefs hang on long after all logic should correct them. Only when I almost spent as much time on the planet as he did, did I realize — oh my god — he never even had a chance.
I don’t feel that I have lived as ferociously as my father did in the forty years I have been given. Perhaps my circumstances did not allow it — my finances, my health, my insecurities — but I still can’t imagine that his forty years allowed him to walk anymore confidently on this planet than I do right now. He was only forty, and now, as I approach that age myself, I finally understand what all those grown ups meant when they’d say he was so young. Forty years is a long time to a twelve year old, but, to this thirty-nine year old (yeah, yeah, yeah I’ll hang tight to it for a couple more days), it is but a teaser trailer for life.
So, while I lived most of the time since losing my father thinking that I shouldn’t dare wish to get any more than he had, now I demand, for both our sakes, that I get the whole damn package. I have barely started living! My heart breaks now in the full comprehension of the loss suffered when my father died. I once mourned solely because I missed my father, now I mourn for all that he missed.
Because, for me, I’m pretty sure forty is just the beginning.
Forty… I like the way it sounds.
Next week I will be forty years old. It’s a big deal. And here’s the kicker: I’m really excited to be turning forty. So much good is happening in my life right now I have no choice but to be happy to be forty. I’m pretty sure the best is yet to come.
If my life didn’t already feel like it was going in that direction, I had a fortune cookie basically tell me so. A little while ago, right around last Thanksgiving (I’m only noticing that irony now!), I got a fortune cookie that made me realize how backward my thinking has been. Yeah. A damn fortune cookie. Here’s a picture of the fortune and my caption from Instagram on Dec. 8, 2015:
- nv_rivera“The best times of your life have not yet been lived.”
I got this fortune last week. Upon reading it I was struck dumb.
This concept was not even hinted at in my own personal belief system.
I couldn’t help but beat myself up — how did I not feel this way when getting married? How dare I not feel this way when my son was born!
Through a ton of reflection I have come to recognize why, and when, this probably started.
In November 1988 I began to believe I would have a great life, that I would be happy, but it would never be whole. My father died, my family was broken. Therefore, the best times — the times when we were all together — had already been lived, and I should just make the best of what was ahead of me.
I was 12. I was happy, I have always been happy, and lucky for the life I have had, but, in reading this fortune I realize that a quiet voice inside has always told me this was because I have made some sort of internal compromise to not expect it ever to be as good as it once was, when I was a child in a family of four.
Wow. That’s sad.
So here I am now. I am 39 years old and I just found out that the best times of my life have not yet been lived.
I can’t wait!
The best times of your life have not yet been lived. Imagine that.