I remember the big aluminum balloon I received from a friend on my 30th birthday, with colored letters splashed across the front that read “Forever 29.” I always thought that was so peculiar, the “white lie” people often tell, claiming they are 29 years old long after 30 has come and gone. I was sure I would never succumb to the seemingly universal desire to be younger. I planned to proudly welcome each new age and the changes it brought.
But in a way, my life did stop at age 29. That was when I was disabled by chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s hard to believe that already three years have passed. I still feel like I’m just 29 years old, because it seems in so many ways I’ve missed the last three years. The world has gone on without me, while I am left standing still—forever 29.
Of course, I know I’m not really 29 anymore. My body feels older (much older than it should), and I am wiser (wiser than I ever wanted to be), and a good friend of mine says I am “kinder and gentler.” Though these are big changes to have taken place in just a few years, I still feel cheated. It seems as if I’ve missed the stuff I’m supposed to be doing—building a career, a family, a life. The years continue to pass by as quickly as ever, and I want to scream, “Wait! I want them back! I’m still 29!”
When I was a child, I just loved birthdays, especially my own. I would count down the months, then weeks, days and even hours, determined to be ready for the exact moment the celebration should begin. It was my day, a day that suddenly made me special. And when the day ended, I felt the unavoidable disappointment that I’d have to wait 364 whole days to have that special feeling again. Even as I got older, I treasured birthdays for the celebration—not just the gifts and the cards, but my own ceremonial acknowledgment of how far I’d come and how hopeful I felt about the coming year.
But this year I’ve been in complete denial. I’m having a birthday this week, but I haven’t been counting the days. Most of the time, I’ve forgotten my birthday is even near. I refuse to turn 32 a moment sooner than I absolutely have to. Life at age 32 isn’t what I thought it would look like. My plans have changed and the future is still uncertain. Yet in my best moments I tell myself I still have reason to celebrate. I’m still here. I’m still living my life in the fullest way I know how. In my best moments, I feel a sense of dignity in the fact that I’m coping with this. I’m finding strength I never knew I had. And I will go on. Whether my body recovers from this illness or not, I will go on.
I’ve learned not to count the years like accomplishments but to count the friends I have, the smiles I’ve shared, and the infinite joys around me at any age. Even though I feel my life somehow “stalled” at 29, I know I’m not the same person I was then.
I’m 32 years old now, and I’m someone I never knew I could be. And that’s got to be something worth celebrating.
I exist as I am—that is enough;
If no other in the world be aware, I sit content;
And if each and all be aware, I sit content.
One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself;
And whether I come to my own to-day, or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass