It is the morning of my forty-sixth birthday and the sun just rose over the hills, painting them a watercolor pink. I am sitting in the dining room of my parents’ house, the renovated upstate New York farmhouse where I grew up. If there is any place that feels like home to me, it is this house. But as I watch the sun greet the Sunday morning that brings me one year closer to fifty, I realize I have never stayed anywhere long enough to really feel at home.
Just at the moment the sun cleared the hills, a wild rabbit appeared outside the dining room window. The rabbit stood still, its ears twitching, closer to the house than I have ever seen a wild rabbit. I watched it for a while, contemplated the life of a rabbit, noticed that this one’s wiry haunches were ready to spring into action at the first sign of danger. Sure enough, within minutes the rabbit disappeared into the bushes with a flick of its white tail. The rabbit was here, and then it was gone. I was just an observer witnessing one brief moment of its life.
I have been eating a small piece of apple pie; I baked it on Friday after my husband and I picked apples at a nearby orchard. We wandered through the rows of carefully planted trees, picked a few hard, red apples, then some green ones, then some that were both red and green. The orchard had provided us with a large, white paper bag with its logo printed on both sides, and we filled the bag with half a bushel, then sat contentedly for a while on a hillside in front of a big red barn near some other weekend harvesters, enjoying the warmth of an unexpectedly sunny day.
I really shouldn’t be eating pie, before seven in the morning no less. Lately I have been trying to regain the slim young body I once had. Frankly, I have been aching to reclaim a lot of things I once had or was or felt, but I doubt I’ll ever see – or be – most of them again. No matter how much I fight the truth, the Faye of yesterday seems beyond me, out of reach. I chastise myself often, telling myself that if I were more disciplined about my diet, worked harder and denied myself more, the body I once had and the person I once was would reappear. So far none of it has worked, and lately I am noticing that I am tired of trying. Today is my birthday. I have watched the sun rise and have noticed a rabbit, and I am eating a slice of apple pie before seven in the morning. So be it.
I am not sure how I feel about turning forty-six, although entertaining the topic implies I have a choice. For a number of years I have been increasingly uncomfortable on my birthday, because I am scared of getting old. As soon as I feel the fear rising, or sense my depression about the passage of time, I think about a woman I met in Oregon when I had just turned thirty. I was visiting the family of the man who would become my first husband. We were gathered around the dinner table with Aaron’s parents and a group of their friends. The occasion was the forty-first birthday of one of the guests, and Aaron’s mother dimmed the dining room lights and entered the room carrying a festive white cake. A single candle stood in the middle, its flame reflected in large picture windows overlooking a stand of pine trees outlined by the moon. We sang “Happy Birthday” as Aaron’s mother placed the cake in the center of the table. The woman was tall and slim with a delicate face and short brown hair, and she placed her hands on her heart, smiling warmly as she looked around the table at her singing friends. When the song ended she said, “Thank you so much. For me, every birthday is a victory and a blessing.” Aaron explained to me later that she had survived cancer.
Every year I try to think about my birthday that way. After all, sixteen years ago my own survival was in doubt; I was diagnosed with a potentially malignant tumor. I endured months of tests and two surgeries. What is generally said about life-threatening illness proved true for me; I stopped taking things for granted the way I did before my illness. I began to notice and appreciate small things more acutely, didn’t grumble quite as much about chores or other things I preferred not to do. I don’t enjoy running long distances, for example; I am short, my stride is slow and I do not have especially strong lungs. In high school I was a sprinter on the track team, “built for speed, not endurance,” as I’ve often been told.
Now when I don’t feel like running I remember a promise I made to God when I was sick, when the scars on my abdomen burned and I walked just five or ten minutes a day for exercise. I promised that if I was ever able to exercise for real again, I would never complain about it. I would appreciate the fact that I was alive and could move.
Now when I get bored with the road and resent the heavy, gasping feeling in my lungs, I remember that promise. I make an effort to feel my legs moving and my feet hitting the ground. I try to taste the air. If none of that makes me feel alive or grateful, I challenge myself to notice something small along the road, something I would never see if I didn’t look carefully – a caterpillar on the leaf of a roadside weed, or a tree that is growing in an odd way, split in the middle. I remind myself that if I endure the run just to be done with it, if I rush through anything without experiencing it, I will miss something important.
Why, then, do I feel sad today? Shouldn’t I be filled with appreciation? If I sense I am not grateful, I chastise myself and force the feeling, because it is a right feeling. Still, there is no escaping the truth this birthday represents; I am a year older, a year further away from my youth, a year closer to whatever happens after youth disappears. My sadness is mingled with fear, and I notice that the fear grows stronger every year. When I was twenty-eight and living in Israel, I had dinner with a friend of my parents who lived in Jerusalem. I told her that I was nervous about turning thirty. She threw her head back and laughed and said, “If you think thirty is old, wait until you turn seventy.”
When I was young I tricked myself. I believed that what was true for the rest of humanity would not be true for me. I thought I was ageless and invincible, that growing older was for people I could not relate to or understand. When I was sixteen my mother was forty-four and my father was forty-eight; I thought of them as older than I would ever be, at a stage in life when everything was settled and decided. Somehow I convinced myself that time would not touch me the way it touched everyone else. The future was always in front of me. Opportunities were abundant and I would be forever youthful, my face wrinkle-free, my body flexible and strong, no cellulite on my hips. I remember wondering how my body could transform from the age I was at to the next. If my body is what it is right now, I thought, and it will be the same tomorrow and the same the day after that, how will it ever become something different, alien, old?
Today I am forty-six and very little in my life is settled or decided. I can’t say that this is a normal state for people my age; I seem to have gotten a bit more distracted along the way than most. I lost my ability to have children when I was sick, and an early divorce led to a lonely decade in my thirties without a partner or the opportunity to adopt. The years passed and I never had the responsibilities taken on by friends who started families and were transformed into adults simply because they had children. I missed that phase of life and now, although I married Jean-Paul in my forties, I admit I feel a little lost. My original roadmap did not cover the territory I found myself in for much of my adult life, single, unable to have children and moving often – from Boston to Israel to New York to Colorado, then back to New York and Boston. I changed jobs often. For a long time I found myself following one road then turning onto another, deciding randomly if the turn would be right or left, then unsure if the choice I made was the right one. Really, I see nothing ahead of me clearly even now, no brightly lit, picturesque town at the end of this highway.
Some people say fairy tales are deceptive and question whether such stories should be told to little girls like I was, who are not likely to grow up and meet handsome princes. I am divided on the issue. I do think fairy tales are deceptive. As far as I can tell after forty-six years, there are no bluebirds tying bows on ball gowns or chariots arriving to whisk me off into the magical night. True, there are wicked witches, but no prince’s kiss has ever woken me from a bad sleep. Usually the alarm clock does. My sense is that there is happiness to be found, but it is not “ever after” – it comes in starts and stops or at unexpected moments that do not necessarily have anything to do with love. Let me reverse that. Happiness always has to do with love – but it is not always about romantic love. Sometimes love is feeding a cat. Sometimes it’s singing Abba songs with a friend in a car in Wyoming. Sometimes love just happens, in an instant, when you see something beautiful. Romantic love is more about willingness than wedding bells and destiny. Or maybe it is willingness and destiny, or destiny is what we choose to believe it is because we’re afraid to believe that life is all about luck.
Still, I believe that fairy tales should be told to little girls. When we are young we have a special capability that is difficult to maintain in later years. We can imagine the fantastic and believe in endless possibilities. That capacity should be fed, I think, with extraordinary things. Magical things. Why not? If we are not allowed to believe life is beautiful when we are young, will we find anything beautiful later in life? Perhaps beauty is self-evident, but maybe it is just another thing we are taught, or choose, to believe in. Beauty, like ugliness, is a human interpretation of what exists. If our ability to believe in beautiful things is squashed when we are little girls, what will be left for us to see or discover later in life?
A little while ago my husband wandered downstairs, wondering where I was so early in the morning, and found me typing on my laptop in the dining room. My parents, who are in their seventies now but still live in this house, are away for the weekend. Jean-Paul and I came here to briefly escape from our lives, which have been stressful because we are both working, I am in school and my mother-in-law is very ill. Jean-Paul entered the kitchen wearing nothing but his running shorts. I think it is fair to say that my husband is handsome; his blue eyes, dirty blond hair and expressive lips almost landed him the lead role in “The Blue Lagoon” opposite Brooke Shields in the ‘70s. Now, however, there are deep lines around his eyes and outlining his lips. This morning dark red impressions had formed around his mouth where a sleep apnea mask had been pressing against his skin all night. His eyes looked bloodshot and tired, and were tinged with yellow because of a benign health condition that is common among people of French Canadian heritage.
Jean-Paul, my high-IQ husband, is a cum laude graduate of Brandeis University. He studied guitar at the Berklee College of Music when he was in his twenties and now holds a master’s degree in social work. He also worked for about ten years as a stripper, starting out in a show called “The Male Encounter” at the Palace nightclub on the outskirts of Boston. Crowds of young women arrived in stretch limousines rented out for bachelorette parties to be entertained by sexy men with muscles. The women drank, cheered and laughed, and stuffed $1 tips into the dancers’ thongs. Jean-Paul grew his hair long, added blonde highlights and performed in numerous dance acts, including one titled “Hellvis.” At the end of every show the young women lined up to pay $5 for an autographed picture.
I knew Jean-Paul from Brandeis, where I had also studied, but hadn’t seen him in seventeen years when I returned to Boston. We met again at a party hosted by a mutual friend. I had been divorced for eight years and on my own for most of that time. I knew nothing about Jean-Paul’s unusual career. I learned about the stripping from a hair stylist at a Boston salon Jean-Paul recommended to me. I told the stylist who had referred me and he said, “Oh, you mean the Chippendales guy.”
“Chippendales?” I asked in surprise, and the stylist looked embarrassed, as if he had slipped up. It turned out Jean-Paul, at forty, had transitioned from “The Male Encounter” into a job as emcee of the Chippendales show Friday nights at the Roxy. He danced in the opening act and emceed the rest of the show, at one point pointing his microphone out toward the audience and asking seductively, “Is there a horny woman in the house?” It was not quite the way Prince Charming had been described, but it was interesting.
Watching my husband shuffle around the kitchen and set up the coffee maker, it occurred to me that the women who once stood in line to meet him might be a little surprised to see him now, with his tired eyes and those other-worldly red impressions on his face. But then I thought about what he’d said when he entered the room and found me typing. He told me he was disappointed that I got up so early, because he had intended to bring me a cup of coffee in bed on my birthday.
Jean-Paul and I took a long walk yesterday along the back roads that climb up and down the rural, hilly landscape of my hometown. First we walked from my parents’ house along County Route 5, past old farming homesteads and Colonial houses and into the center of town, an intersection marked by a blinking traffic light. We stopped for croissants at a coffee shop that now occupies the old post office, then continued walking past acre after acre of old farmland flanked by woods.
Every now and then as we walked, I spied a caterpillar inching its way across the pavement from one side of the road to the other. There is little traffic on the back roads but occasionally cars do pass, and I can never bear the thought of a caterpillar getting squashed beneath speeding tires. So each time I saw one I found a stick at the side of the road or pulled up a weed and held it in front of the caterpillar until it climbed on. Then I moved the little creature to safety on the opposite side of the road. This habit of mine makes for relatively slow progress on country walks.
At one point a car raced up over a hill after I noticed one of the caterpillars. I had no time to grab a stick, so I scooped the caterpillar into my hands and rushed it to the side of the road before the car zoomed past. I don’t think I got to the next caterpillar in time, and it bothers me to think about that as I sit here and write. I thought the caterpillar was far enough in the opposite lane to be missed by an oncoming car, but after the car passed and I picked it up and deposited it on the other side of the road I noticed that a spot of yellow goo remained on my palm. Jean-Paul suggested the caterpillar might have voided as a defense mechanism, as some animals do when they are frightened. But I suspect that it had been hit by the car, even though it curled into a ball the way caterpillars always do when I touch them. This thought bothers me so much sitting here that I feel for a moment paralyzed by my sadness.
I know, logically, that there are caterpillars I can save, and caterpillars I can’t save, and that it is perhaps more than silly to attempt to save any caterpillars at all. It’s not as if I control the fate of the world’s creatures, or as if saving one or two or three or four makes any difference in a world populated by millions of caterpillars. But I can’t stop my impulse. Saving caterpillars makes me feel a little better about something. Perhaps I am just playing the leading role in my own fairy tale, the one in which the smallest, most insignificant beings are hugely important, and I am a hero who can rescue them all.
A few years ago I went on a whale watch off the coast of Portland, Maine. Riding in boats always makes me seasick, so I took medication before the trip that day to stave off the sickness. Unfortunately it was October, the end of the whale-watching season, and the boat wandered around the harbor and the waters further out for six hours before the captain spotted a whale for us to watch. Most of the passengers were in a good mood, excited for the outing, and they passed the long hours sitting on the deck wrapped in warm, waterproof clothing, enjoying the cold, salty sea air. Occasionally they ducked inside to buy food at a small concession stand or to sit at wooden booths indoors. Finally a humpback whale was sighted in the distance, the captain made a gleeful announcement over the PA system, and everyone rushed to the appropriate side of the boat, grabbing for their cameras and binoculars. My medication had long worn off, however. The boat was listing from side to side, I was nauseous and my head was pounding. We headed straight into twelve-foot swells that pushed the bow up and then brought it crashing down so that the frigid seawater sprayed over the passengers and onto the decks. Still, I stood up on shaky legs, grasped the cold railing on the side of the boat with my hands, and stared eagerly across the water. When I saw him, when I saw that whale, my head, my stomach, the cold salt spray on my face and the icy railing under my hands didn’t matter. I couldn’t breathe for a moment; I felt an indescribable joy. The whale breached once, then twice, and I wrapped my frozen fingers around the small camera hanging from a strap around my neck and held it as steadily as I could, hoping to snap some pictures. The whale breached again and I caught it on film. It breached five times, leaping from the sea and falling gracefully onto its side with a massive splash, finally disappearing for the last time beneath the surface. Then the boat turned around and headed back to shore.
I see the whale and I love the whale. I see the whale and I turn my pounding head off, I turn my thoughts off, I ignore the salty taste in my mouth and the rocking of the boat and the sound of the excited captain yelling into the microphone. In that moment there is nothing, there is no past, no future, no birth, and no death. There is just the whale. The whale is beautiful, and I believe.
Today is my birthday. I am forty-six years old, but I don’t want to think about it anymore. The sun is up and I smell the coffee brewing and I have spent too much time wishing I was something I am not – wishing I was young. The sun does not care that I am forty-six, and the hills do not care and the caterpillars do not care and the whale does not care and my husband does not care, and if I am not careful it will all vanish in an instant, like the rabbit, and I will miss the moment we share.