When I was a child, my father told me he didn't expect to live past fifty-two. He had suffered from rheumatic fever in World War II and was discharged at the very beginning of his service. The condition weakens the heart, he explained. Doctors had given him the numerical prognosis. "I think you should know," he added. My mother didn't like it that my father put this ominous information in her young child's head. Sure enough, I couldn't look at my father after that without fearing he would drop dead at any moment. Today, as a parent of two kids myself, I have to agree with my late mother. As it played out, my father lived to sixty-eight. I was twenty-five at the time instead of nine.
Now let me tell you: fifty-two ain't so bad. I know because I just turned the playing-card age today. To be sure, two years past a half-century is getting up there. I could be a member of AARP and get a free donut at Dunkin' Donuts, but I'm not ready to enroll in that age-based organization. I deal with health issues I didn't have even a few years ago in my late forties. However, I am still active (mountain climbing, camping, canoeing, kayaking, etc.) and mostly happy -- indeed, some days are more of a struggle than others -- and very busy because of my kids. Many, many years await me, God willing.
I will do whatever I can to make sure of that.
Fifty-two (or any age, of course) strikes everyone differently. Here's how it has found me: I look, act, and dress much younger than my age. That's not to say I'm immature or wear crop tops. I am not and do not. Yet I still have plenty of wavy blond hair -- no gray -- that I often wear in a ponytail and that hasn't been painted with highlights or wrapped in hair salon foil in probably a year. Occasionally, I get compliments on my skin, which is amazing to me since I used to have acne that I made terrible by obsessive picking. (For the record, you can still get zits at fifty-two! Who knew? I have some right now. My post-summer flare ups from wearing sunblock.) I was forty the first time someone told me I had nice skin. She meant no wrinkles. It was my aunt, but still. Attired in jeans, shorts, tee shirts, or other casual tops nearly all the time, I am generally mistaken for five to ten years younger than my age and sometimes even more.
Back in boarding school, my roommate my first year used Erno Laszlo products. Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and fifteen-year-old V. Seriously. A college roommate of mine was a Shaklee devotee. I had never heard of either skin care line before meeting these classmates. For a time, I used a Clinique trifecta -- cleanser, toner, and moisturizer -- because something free came with the deal, no doubt. Maybe a shiny makeup bag or little case of eye shadow I didn't know how to apply. For the money I was spending, did these products really improve my skin? I really can't say. Mostly I chose what my friends were using, like Noxzema. (My mother really hated that smell.) More recently, it was Cetaphil, and now I buy a Neutrogena cleanser. Jennifer Garner looks pretty good, doesn't she?
I attribute my lack of wrinkles for a woman my age to my simple cleaning regimen and, particularly, my decision to face the world au naturel. What you see is what you get. No makeup (or concealer), Botox, collagen, plastic surgery, facelift, or what have you. I wear a little makeup if I have a date, photo shoot, or evening plans. Otherwise, I walk out the door bare-faced.
My weight has been more difficult to maintain. The culprit, as I see it, is less my age and more my stress level as a full-time single mother for one and a half months short of a decade. Put a crown on my head! I dropped the baby pounds immediately, Duchess of Cambridge-style, both times I gave birth in my forties and even shed a few extra lbs. for good measure one of those times. Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian, eat your hearts out! Yet once the reality of raising a child then a second without hardly any free help kicked in (uh, that would be immediately!), the pounds began to creep back -- first, slowly and, later, more rapidly. I was wiped out with one child, but my chronic fatigue syndrome really moved in for the duration after my second (colicky AND a horrible sleeper) came along. Sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and weight gain go hand in hand, nevermind the pressure brought on by my huge responsibilities. All told, I put on about thirty pounds.
I lost the first five myself then went on a formal diet plan and shed the rest. Unfortunately, my effort was all for nought as a series of bad circumstances soon befell me and derailed my success and motivation. Tragedy! I injured my back. My boyfriend broke up with me. My home was damaged following a toilet issue. And I got taken in by a Nigerian fraud on Match.com after wasting an entire summer on him. My mood went from super proud of myself to defeated in a matter of months. The fact that I could not deal with -- and still haven't dealt with -- my home on top of my demanding 24/7 single-mother duties ensured that I could not restore my demeanor to its earlier upbeat level. What's more, despite the fact that I've rejoined Jenny Craig after dropping out, I have not returned to my lowest recent weight. In fact, I am right now at the upper end of that spectrum.
Here's the thing: I like to eat. There, I've said it. I am not a binger or even an overeater, I believe. Yet I still have my appetite, and I indulge myself if I feel like it. I am not someone who picks at her food or chooses hummus and carrots for lunch, though I do love a good salad. I am not a waif, and I'm never going to be anorexic, though I have been too skinny a couple of times in my life after protest-starving myself (another blog post) and returning from four months in Asia during which I contracted bronchitis, severe bacterial dysentery, and dehydration.
Ah, the good old days!
These days I finish my meals then follow up with dessert if I feel tempted. I'm not going to apologize to anyone for enjoying food or having gained some weight as a result. I am okay with both -- emotionally and physically. Unlike the first time I gained weight as a single mother, I feel strong not depleted. I wish I could say the added pounds were all muscle this time around, but I can't because I still don't get enough exercise due to lack of time.
In any case, my situation is not at all uncommon among mothers, even more so overburdened single mothers like myself. And I am fifty-two, don't forget. The march of age does play a role in weight gain.
Regarding my eyes, a new milestone was reached a couple of years ago when I was informed, gulp, that I needed bifocals. I've worn prescription glasses or contact lenses since senior year in high school. Pearle Vision worked the prescription into my new eyewear -- I believe that was the time they gave me a free silver and blue digital camera -- and I even went so far as to purchase two pairs of contact lenses: one for daily use and the other for playing sports like tennis to help me better see the ball across the court. Lol. I can't remember when I last wore lenses AND played tennis at the same time. No wait, I do remember. It was during the spring of 2011 when we took our last week-long vacation, a trip to a family Club Med in Florida. At forty-nine, I beat in the finals of the Ladies Singles tournament that week a thirty-five-year-old MIT professor who was about six feet tall. Still got it (or, maybe, had it)! Four months before my fiftieth birthday, that made me feel really good.
As for my teeth, I don't believe I flossed my entire mouth once before the age of fifty. "Don't leave home without it" -- that classic American Express slogan -- is now how I feel about floss and my seafoam-green plastic CVS toothpicks. I have a near panic attack (okay, a small one) if I find myself out and about and possibly eating a meal or snack without one of the above in my pocket or purse. Food gets lodged easily between my teeth, particularly inside the two pockets in the back on both sides, and it bothers the heck out of me if I can't remove it right away. The word "periodontist" has entered my conversations with my dental hygienist and dentist, but I have yet to seek one out.
Then there's that other aspect of my skin, not the fantastic looking-younger-than-its-age part. I'm talking about the, ugh, skin-cancer part. I was diagnosed at thirty-four, eighteen years ago. The year was 1996, and my mother died from the disease the year before. Certainly, the diagnosis was unwelcome and shocking because of my young age, but it was not surprising given that I possessed the basic markers: genetics, fair skin, and countless painful sunburns in my past.
To be sure, my nose peeled every summer when I was a child and youth on a Connecticut beach club's swim and tennis teams and at a camp in Maine I attended six years. During my college summers, I lifeguarded and taught swimming at a beach-club pool in the Hamptons. And when I was lucky, I got invited down to Palm Beach to visit my aunt and uncle. Suntan lotion, sunscreen and, later, sunblock were beach-bag necessities for me. But I made a lot of mistakes. I forgot to bring them along too many times to count. Or I didn't have a high enough SPF. Or I couldn't reach a spot on my back. Or I got involved in something in the sun before remembering to apply the cream.
As it turned out, she did an incredible job removing all the cancerous tissue without interfering with my nose. But then the trick became preventing more interference. At the time, I was running after my three-year-old son Christopher but, worse, co-sleeping with baby Charlie and breastfeeding him while trying to keep his flailing arms and reaching hands away from the healing scar!
For several years, I had a question on my mind but was afraid to ask it: Does the presence of a squamous cell carcinoma mean my skin cancer is no longer benign? After finally mustering up the courage a couple of years ago, my fears were confirmed. My skin cancer had left the realm of benign and entered the territory of "invasive."
I don't like the word invasive. It suggests aggressive armies attacking innocent civilian populations. No. I don't want anything invasive forcing its way around my epidermis and taking up residence there!
I also didn't like it when my dermatologist's assistant told me that the BIDMC surgeon had "asked about me." Not because she liked me so much and was interested in my family. But because she wanted to know about my present condition. Let me tell you: you don't want to hear that your surgeon is asking about you!
In any case, the same physician assistant -- who, at first sight of me, lunges toward my scar -- concluded the last time I saw her that I'm just one of these people who gets marks frequently that need to be treated. She is extremely pleased with the job the surgeon did on my face. The scar running straight down from the right side of my nose to my upper lip has healed well, and it appears no different than it did when it first closed up. These are good signs. And it is not too noticeable. It just looks like I was in a street fight. I don't even cover it with makeup. I visit the physician assistant every six months, though I've learned it does me no good to be examined in the warm months when I have color in my face because it's harder for her to tell what might or might not be something she needs to examine. Now that summer is over and my "tan" has faded, I am due for another checkup.
Checkups cause me some anxiety, but I don't talk about my skin cancer or give it much thought, really. I have kept it private. Well, that is, until now.
Another condition I have that makes me think of Charlie is vertigo. He gave it to me when he was breathing into my ear while we were still co-sleeping, and he had a virus. The virus manifested itself in me as an inner-ear infection. For three weeks solid, I had momentary yet relentless waves of dizziness day and night. They were especially scary when I had to drive with my young boys on the highway. Unfortunately, the condition is chronic. Indeed, I have experienced other briefer and less severe periods of vertigo including one that lasted all of last week! I haven't had the chance to go scuba diving in a dozen years, but I hope my vertigo doesn't preclude me from doing so in the future.
Finally, what would a fifty-something birthday be without a new diagnosis?! Yep, 'this true. Today I was told I have plantar fasciitis, a foot issue. A friend's husband, a podiatrist, broke the news to me before he and his wife presented me with their birthday present: my first pair of orthotics!
Fifty-two doesn't suck. Still, it reminds me which way down the continuum I am heading. For that reason, I took it upon myself to do something today to feel young. I purchased a Rainbow Loom, the hot toy of the moment of girls and boys across the country. Crafting bracelets and rings out of brightly colored rubber bands may not make me feel twelve, so let's just call it a draw.
I'll settle for thirty-two.