Forty

 

Our youngest son, Asher, is five. He loves music with a strong drum beat, can’t help but laugh when someone gets hurt in a movie, and (we discovered just this past Christmas) can put together Lego projects independently.

 

I don’t think I got Lego’s as a kid (friendly wave to my brother, Hi!, I think they were more up your alley) but it wasn’t until I had a 5-year-old that I realized Lego’s don’t just come in a box with a picture of what you can build — They come in a box, with explicit directions, in pre-packaged labeled sections that you’re supposed to build.

 

Build what’s in the first package, the second, the third. Put them all together and, there you go: Batman’s Shark Boat fights the Jedi Death Star. (Maybe? No?) 

 

Where did I get the idea that you just got a box of Legos and built whatever you wanted?

 

The other day I pulled out one (of two) bin of Legos, hoping to get through a chunk of our day, and because I had some time, I sat down and played right along with my kids. I hardly ever get down on the floor anymore. (Rewind my life 8 years: I was an ardent floor-player. Sorry, little kids: Been there, done that.)

 

Some long grey pieces caught my eye. Then some wheels. I sifted through the huge pile of pieces, picking and choosing, gathering and thinking. Which pieces do I like? What do I want to make?  Given what I have, what can I make? 

 

And then I started to build.

 

I’d take a little break, not sure what I wanted to do next (directions are easier, aren’t they? Building whatever you want takes a certain amount of practised creativity). Looking at the pile, individual pieces caught my eye (Purple bricks! Pink arches! A parrot!) so I scooped them up into a pile beside my leg and kept looking. As I sifted, ideas kept coming for how to make my creation better, or different — more “me.” I spent some time modifying what I’d done so far, pulling off, rebuilding, discarding what I didn’t need anymore: editing. 

 

I spent more time sifting through the pile of pieces until I found what I liked, searching for parts I wanted, and thinking how to use it all so it works together — than actually building it.  

 

Once I knew what I was working with and what I wanted to do, putting it together was easy.

 

*

 

I was 22 when I got my first job out of college, working as a nurse in a burn/trauma Intensive Care Unit at one of the biggest, busiest hospitals in western New York. (Oh, the stories I can tell…)

 

Well into that first year on the job, one quiet night — back in the days when the nurses sat around at the front desk together to do paperwork and shoot the breeze, tell funny stories, and connect in a way that’s necessary when so much of what you see is pain and hurt — two nurses started talking about my age and giving advice about getting older. 

 

“Just you wait,” they said with authority. “You’ll really figure out who you are in your 30s.”

 

I tilted my head and looked to the right for a second. I didn’t need to wait until then. “But what if I already know who I am?” I asked.

 

They laughed: a figurative pat on the head and, if we lived in the south, it would’ve been a Bless Her Heart.

 

I knew who I was back then, and it frustrated me to have to wait around until my 30’s for people to take me seriously.  

 

*

 

I’m fully convinced that becoming an adult has nothing to do with age, and everything to do with your heart understanding that there’s a heaviness to life. It doesn’t have to make you serious, and it’s hardly fair, but to me, this is the defining characteristic of adulthood.

 

I’ve met 11-year-old girls who are adults. And 35-year-old men who aren’t.

 

I became an adult at 18.

 

*

 

I turn 40 this week and without fanfare, I simply cannot believe it. For the moment, my emotions are fine, good even. Time is a fact and I won’t lament it’s passing. (By nature, I’m more of a celebrator anyways; pass the champagne, will you?)

 

Yet there is an inevitable heaviness to this new decade I’m entering.

 

It’s not because of metabolism slowing or a no-longer-possible-to-ignore need for glasses when I write … it’s simply because it was here, in her 40s, when my mom died.

 

This is a fact I cannot help but acknowledge.

 

The heaviness I’ve carried more than half my life, what I held while women ten and twenty years my senior told me “just you wait” is now tangible. I’m walking beside it. 

 

I am no longer the young woman who understands grief beyond her years.

 

I am no longer a child mourning her mother.

 

I am a woman, a wife, a mother mourning the life of my mom — all of her. Her as a woman, a wife, and a mother. I know more now. And there is more to grieve than I once thought.

 

*

 

I spent my early 20s gathering pieces for a foundation of what my future life would look like. Chris and I, together, put what we found in cardboard boxes kept on the floor of the closet of our small 12th-floor apartment. We were saving them for the future, whenever that would start.  

 

Then halfway through my 20s, the foundation of my life cracked and crumbled. Again.

 

It’s hard to re-build where two foundations had already failed.

 

All the directions I used for the first, and second attempt, didn’t work out the way they were supposed to. Life didn’t look like the front of the box, the way it’s supposed to you just put this piece here and attach that piece there. I’d lost the instructions by this point and didn’t really know what I was even trying to build.

 

In my early 30s, I put pieces wherever they would fit. There was no time to stop and sort them all out, I just wanted something to stand up without falling over or breaking in half.  

 

Then came a time when I had to stop, see what I’d put where, why certain spots kept tipping. I had to stop and ask — What do I like about this? What needs to change? Do I need more pieces? What do I really want this to look like?

 

Editing. Revision. 

 

There’s so much sorting and sifting and gathering in life, isn’t there? More than I ever thought. All of it being built, torn down, modified: slowly, slowly. 

 

Getting from my early 20s to here (and beyond) wasn’t a linear path. I didn’t think it would take this long, but it’s clear I needed time.  

 

I will remember entering my 40s as both knowing who I am, and being pleased with what I’ve made so far.

 

 

 

Photo by Rick Mason on Unsplash

Sonya Spillmann

3 Comments

  1. Wow, you really hit it. Especially this part:

    In my early 30s, I put pieces wherever they would fit. There was no time to stop and sort them all out, I just wanted something to stand up without falling over or breaking in half. [TRUE!! And so much of early motherhood for anyone.]
    Then came a time when I had to stop, see what I’d put where, why certain spots kept tipping. I had to stop and ask — What do I like about this? What needs to change? Do I need more pieces? What do I really want this to look like? [YES.]

  2. As always, thank you for sharing. I lost my mom when I was 24 and she was 49. I am sure entering my 40’s will be difficult for the same reason you mentioned. And motherhood is so fast-paced there is hardly time to sort through the pieces. I had never quite thought of it this way before.

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