So about a week ago, in advance of my approaching birthday at the time, my 4 (almost 5) year-old daughter Ella Jane asked innocently after her bath one night, “How old will you be, Mommy, when it’s your birthday?”
My first thought was, “Wait, am I 36 or am I 37?” In that panic-stricken moment I quite honestly couldn’t remember if I’ve just been telling myself these last few weeks that I’m already 36 to get used to the idea, or if I am in fact on the eve of my 37th year..?! And if the case was actually the latter, my next thought was, “Damn, where did that time go?!” I hung suspended in bewilderment for a few seconds, questioning all I thought I knew about myself and reeling in the blast of a year that just flashed before my eyes.
But thankfully, in the next instant, my sense of clarity — along with a few rudimentary math skills — graciously returned, reminding me that the year is 2017, which means if I just subtract one (i.e., I was born in 1981), then TA-DA! I’m only turning 36!
I then relished, if only for a few seconds more, a delectable feeling that I had not in fact squandered away an entire year of my life.
But, as if that heart-stopping moment and narrowly averted age crisis wasn’t enough to digest for one night, what Ella Jane would demonstrate for me next was beyond all the existential I could handle for a Monday.
Amidst the sweet smell of baby shampoo and slippery rollicking as I attempted to wrestle her dry with a towel — the child, also now trying on her own new rudimentary math skills, asked me “Can you help me count to 36, Mommy?”
Before I could even respond, she was off: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…,” breezing through the next set with skillful ease, “11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20…,” only to follow without any real help from me, “21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29,” and finally rounding out her count without missing a beat, “30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, … 36!”
And just like that, with the speed at which an almost 5-year-old’s fledgling counting skills could keep pace, all the years of my life were rattled off without pause or interruption, one after another, coming faster and faster, in the span of what was actually about only 30 seconds all in all. Apart from feeling genuinely impressed in how my daughter’s arithmetic expertise is growing — I was more powerfully taken aback in that moment by the magnitude of my implicit realization and just how effortlessly, impossibly swift not only a year — but my entire life can pass me by.
When I later broke it down, what 36 actually turns out to be in the context of time is a whopping 13,149 days, 1,872 weeks, and over three and a half decades that I have been alive. While some of those days or weeks live on with incredibly poignant vigor in my mind, some painfully so, there are far too many others of which I have no recollection — absolutely none, whatsoever. To think, so much of my life faded into the obscure corners of my subconscious while I wasn’t paying attention or really noticing it go by. And when I think about it in those sad terms – well, that is a LOT of time, there must be a million moments lost, and really, now I just feel OLD.
Once I got over the initial blow of this brutal new point of view, the harsh reality of how old I really am (at least chronologically), and a sense of mourning for all the life that I’ll never be able to reclaim – I found yet another moment of clarity.
Somewhere from these ruminations emerged a voice reminding me to be gracious with myself and remember that the sum of this very moment — this realization in and of itself — is a collection of all these parts: the laughs that still make me chuckle, the tears that still sting, even the countless hours of inebriated oblivion that were my early 20’s (not my finest). My very arrival at this ability to recognize and appreciate my life for exactly what it is today wouldn’t be possible without the culmination of these experiences, precisely as I have lived them, whether they were memorable or not.
And so with that, I’m thinking maybe 36 is the year I finally scrub down to a cleaner, lighter version of myself, choosing to wash myself of the negative self-criticisms and nagging “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve-beens.” Instead, maybe 36 can mean just embracing the day I have at hand, being more present in each and every moment, and feeling grateful for the beauty that lives around me and also in myself, just the way it is.
Maybe then 36 will also mean enjoying even more playful bath time conversations, delighting in my daughter’s zeal to share her budding masteries with me, or just simply breathing in more of the freshly bathed, beautiful smell on both my children, whose souls somehow remain the purest clean of all.
While I know age is really just a number, somehow these recent reflections, revelations, and gratitudes that have followed, make turning 36 feel more special than any other birthday I’ve ever had. Perhaps it’s because at the very least I know now that a new year means insights are sure to be richer, lathered in more forgiveness, and honored with a little more proverbial bubbly by sudsy candlelight, as I more intentionally work hard to soak it all in.
And then — just maybe — that is a new kind of clean that makes turning 36 — and adding another number to the life count — something worth truly celebrating.