The day I turned fifty was just another day. While friends and acquaintances headed into their next half century planning parties and trips and celebrations of life, I was engrossed in just getting through another week. Change was barreling toward me and I was not handling it well. Family and friends may not have noticed, but I was secretly drowning.
Turning 50 meant that my eldest son, a real joy in our household, would be moving seven hours away at University. Turning fifty meant my youngest son was headed off to middle school and the drama it inevitably delivers. Turning fifty meant reevaluating where I had been and where I was going. Yet I had a husband I loved and who cared for me immensely. My live-in parents were well and we enjoyed one last summer sharing meals and anticipating our changed reality together. I was embracing new friendships. While our table of six would be a table of five for some Sunday dinners, my son would be sitting there again for Thanksgiving Day.
Turning fifty reinforced the already obvious physical changes I had been experiencing, still difficult to embrace. Always a tall and voluptuous woman, my body was becoming even more unfamiliar. The turmoil I was feeling inside seemed to be seeping out under my skin ready to explode.
Spent and uninspired, I also took a big career turn. I had left a demanding work life nearly four years prior to concentrate on my children and reevaluate my priorities. I had enjoyed a stint as a consultant in my chosen field. Now it was time to make a more permanent commitment. Shortly after turning fifty, with a few good options available, I made an unexpected change that guaranteed our family more stability and me less stress. With a burgeoning preteen and two aging parents, it seemed like the best choice. I’d continue to be available to them, while finally increasing our income.
My youngest’s transition to a new school and new expectations was rough on us all. I found myself losing sleep and doubting my parenting skills. With an excellent support team at home, a caring school, and some newly strengthened friendships, I limped along through the first six months of my fifty-first year.
As the holidays approached, and my newly minted college freshman finally returned for a short Christmas visit, I embraced the hope and promise of the new year. Christmas Eve my Mom and I snuck out for the midnight Mass cantered by my talented son. In the candlelight, surrounded by twinkling evergreens and incense, I prayed for patience, acceptance, and grace. I could do this. I had survived these first months of change shaky but intact. Little did I know I’d need the answers to those prayers.
The year started out with my husband literally on his back. Gout, the flu, you name it. Plans were scrapped, takeout was ordered, and we got used to not having our son around again. I was slowly ramping up in my new job, and my middle schooler was doing a bit better. I continued to pray for strength and confidence. I joined a yoga class and began reading novels again.
The prospect of having our boy back for an early spring break was a happy one. His Christmas visit was shortened by an early return to campus, and he was looking forward to a relaxing spring break in his own home. The rainy damp weather of late March was almost done. Easter was just a few short weeks away. Fifty would soon be fifty-one, and while I knew I had a lot of work to do, I felt the strength of friends who were having similar growing pains.
Dad started feeling unwell while my son was home on break. He had inklings of a change in health some months before. But a doctor’s visit and some additional meds assured him he was well. On the day my son drove away, however, it was clear something was seriously amiss. One month later, just weeks before my fifty-first birthday, my father was gone.
The days leading up to the loss of my father are some of the clearest moments of my life. From the last family dinner at our table of six to his last dying breaths, the shock of watching his strength and spirit erode will be forever with me. His quiet suffering did not shake his resolve to pass on his own terms. His generosity of spirit only increased as he took the time to have last conversations not only with his four grown children, but many grandchildren as well. Just ten days passed, we were able to collectively honor the hard-working man who often put his children first.
My fifty-first birthday was a lonely affair. Rocked by my father’s sudden death and blind-sided by the unexpected results of misplaced grief, I discovered my reliable supports were gone. I recognized nothing and no one. My kids were shell-shocked. Everything familiar was simply strange. Confused and defeated, I simply shut down. I couldn’t pray anymore. I knew this change would be irreparable.
My father is gone not quite four months now. Our table of six has dwindled to three most days. Past traditions we nurtured and relished are memories now. I am tempted to question what came before and reevaluate our unshakeable love and loyalty for each other. But then I remembered a moment I shared with my father that now seems to forebode everything that has happened since. I didn’t know it then, but it was a gift I would recall as I faced the difficult realities of change.
During my father’s second hospitalization, when it was clear that he faced an insurmountable battle, I had the opportunity to sit alone with him for a few hours. It was April 15 and Dad had just two weeks to live. We had just gotten news that Notre Dame was burning and we found live footage on my cell phone, volume muted, to monitor the shocking developments. Mom and one of my siblings had left to take a break, and I cherished what would be the last quiet time I’d ever have with my father alone. He was holding my hand and quietly dozing. The heavy pain medication did little to relieve his suffering. Sleep at least gave him a respite from his reality.
I listened to his breathing and watched silently as the storied cathedral, conceived in 1163, precariously held on while countless Parisians fought for its survival. No one ever imagined that this well-protected, priceless tribute to the almighty could disappear. Yet there she was burning, her spires tumbling down into dust that fell on spectators for miles. No one knew for sure if their centuries old beacon would survive the night.
When Dad awoke we’d have quiet conversation. We marveled at the ferocity of the fire devouring man’s masterpiece. We talked about gratitude for his sacrifices and I made promises I would keep in the future. He shared with me some truths that I had never known, and in turn I reassured him his fears would not be realized. I would not let things burn. I would fight to keep some beacon of normalcy alive.
The next morning Notre Dame was standing, yet forever altered. The dust from beams that were fashioned from massive trees never seen since, were coating the streets. Priceless artifacts were damaged or destroyed. Faith in her permanence was shaken. Later it would be found that the safety precautions put in place were simply not enough to counter human frailty. Mistakes were made. Valuable time was wasted. The fire found a weakness in the plan. Notre Dame and Paris itself, were forever changed.
I remember that day and how mesmerized I was as the impermanence of things. My beacon, my touch stone was being ravished in the bed beside me. The precautions meant nothing. And while I battled to keep everything the same, it couldn’t be. There will always be oversites. There will always be fragility. There will always be the heat of angry flame that sometimes cannot be extinguished until it burns itself out.
My life is unrecognizable right now. The change I fought came faster and more furious than my fears allowed. Like the Parisians, there is a chance for me to fashion a new beacon informed by the blueprints of what went before. It may not be what I hoped. It may not be what I promised. But it is what is meant to be. No fear of change can change that.
I’ve come to accept impermanence. The truth of our lives is that nothing is final or unchangeable. What stood for centuries can be gone in a flash of heat, a poof of smoke. Eventually everything leaves us behind. All, I’ve come to see, except the very act of faith in what you’ve built and nurtured. The pure intention that breathed it life will always survive in those that felt its purpose, who felt its love, long after they crumble and the ash blows away.