Before I turned 50, I thought death happened to other people. I knew I was supposed to die someday, but the prospect seemed more conceptual than a reality. That changed once my age started with a “5.” There was something about turning 50 that made me realize I was now one of those other people death would eventually claim.
Most of the time, I don’t feel my age. I’ve been the same weight, give or take five pounds, since I was a teenager. I tend to date younger men. And I’m an avid exerciser: I’ve done some combination of jogging, hiking, yoga, weight-training, and Pilates for the past three decades. Other than the toll of gravity, and a loss of elasticity in my skin, my body feels no different than it has my entire life.
Until last week.
I woke up on Sunday feeling like I’d been kicked in my lower back. Turning over was agonizing, and standing was even worse. I had no idea what had happened; there wasn’t a moment when I had wrenched it. I figured it was a delayed reaction from working out. Because I still feel that I’m invincible, and I’m an idiot, I never stretch after exercising. But that’s when it dawned on me: I’m 52. My body is no longer indestructible. Assuming I’m lucky enough to collect a few more decades, I will also collect more frailities. And one day, the frailities will overtake me. I’ll die.
I hobbled into the chiropractor’s office, practically in tears. He pressed his thumbs into my back and promptly announced I had sprained it. I had the kind of injury that is usually not precipitated by an event, he said. It happens the way it happened to me: one day you wake up in agony, feeling like you’re 110.
He put wet heat on my lower back and told me to go home and ice it as much as possible. So I did. I laid in bed for much of the Thanksgiving holiday, eating Advil like Skittles, hauling myself upright only to go to the bathroom, or the kitchen.
As I limped around, I placed my palm on the small of my back, above my hip, and I thought: this is how old people walk, with a groan and a shuffle. I wondered what it would be like when moving like this would be the norm and not the exception. What it would be like not to be able to jog, to hop out of bed, to bend down without feeling like you’re taking your life in your hands, to have sex only in certain positions.
There is something about the illusion of a limitless horizon that makes you squander your time. And there is something about accepting the fact that you are actually going to die, that alters your field of vision. What would have been tragic in your youth recedes; what you might have taken for granted crystallizes and pops, like black on white. It becomes something to savor. You realize that many of the things you thought you needed to be happy, that washed away, or never transpired, have actually not kept you from being happy.
My back is better now. I’m no longer married to my ice pack. I’m grateful for the lull of a Sunday morning, the cat on the end of the bed, hot coffee on the nightstand, fingers that move effortlessly across a laptop keyboard cradled between my legs.
And, strange to say, or maybe not, I’m grateful for fully realizing that I’m going to die. Someday.
Photography by Nick Holmes