‘Age is just a number’ they tell you. Once you pass 34, this phrase is offered as a way of cushioning the blow of reaching base camp, ahead of the steep climb up to the precipice of middle age…Well, age is not just a number for me. In one week I turn 46. Not a particularly exciting number of years to have reached but for me, this number has been a huge emotional ticking bomb. A huge 4 and 6 lurking in the background of my life, an age which I was both praying and dreading to reach. More daunting than turning 30, more life changing than reaching 40. It has been the age I have been fearful of arriving at since I was 24, and lost my Mum to AIDS. She was 46.
I have been both curious and weary of this event, feeling a mixture of apprehension and sadness. How would I feel about actually turning this age? Would I spiral into a deep depression? Would I be gifted with some emotional insight that would enrich my understanding of life? What I am reminded of most is the immense grief I experienced at losing her to such a terrible disease and how, much too soon, she was taken from me. The first signs of ill health appeared three years before her death. Dramatic weight and hair loss, shingles and nausea were just a few of the symptoms that transformed her physically and quickly before my eyes. Within those three years, my beautiful, statuesque mother had become skeletal, withered and broken. She had aged so rapidly that seeing her lying on her deathbed, a stranger would have said she was in her 90’s, not 40’s.
You get used to not having your Mum around. No more cozy Christmases with Mum doing the cooking, no-one to run to when you’re feeling depressed, to help pick out your wedding dress or help with your new baby. I accepted all these lost moments. It was my life, it was awful but it’s just the way it was. Now reaching 46, I find that not having my mother around as a point of reference for growing into an older woman is a strange phenomenon. I wish I could be suspended, frozen in time at the age I remember her last being vibrant and well.
Going forward, I wonder how I will approach the next stage of my life. How will I feel about turning 50? What will I look like? When will I go through the menopause? I can’t ask her what her worries would have been about growing older. I wonder what would have been the focus of her life, how would she have looked after herself, done her hair? Would she have used Botox. Would she have started a new career? Mum never reached menopause or became a grandma and these are experiences I will never be able to question her about. I can only take from her what I had up until her death. Her love, an exquisite unconditional force, a thick invisible cord that bound us together, which I felt being ripped away from me when she died. Only it’s threads now remain. They run through me like stitching, holding me together in a framework of strength that has supported me since.
At 46, I am a mum of a seven-year-old girl. The thought of leaving her at this age is unimaginable. My biggest fear as an older mother is that I might leave my daughter too early, before I can instil in her what my mum had instilled in me, a sense of compassion, kindness and strength. I am sure losing your mother at any age causes a momentous shift in your life and, as many of my friends’ mothers now approach their 70’s and 80’s, I know this time is coming for them too. On the occasions when I am around them, I often find myself suspended in awe at this mother-daughter spectacle. I look on with a goofy grin of wonder on my face, even when they are bickering. I just can’t get over the momentous privilege they enjoy, to have had their mums around in their lives for so long.
I have come to realise that for me, reaching this age is a huge transition. A part of me feels like I am living on borrowed time and that I should bloody well make the most of it. It is also a time of questions, tinged with grief and even guilt. Why do I get to live longer than she did? Why am I so privileged to be afforded the opportunity to grow happily old when she wasn’t? But most importantly, this is the age, more than any other, where I feel like I am becoming a grown-up. With no reference point for my older self going forward, I am saying goodbye to the old me, keeping the best bits and chucking the rest away. I am winging it from now on.