Some thoughts on turning 60

My house is full of children today. It has been a long time since I could say that. The youngest is 27 and the oldest is already 31, but to me they will always be children. And, even though I will be turning 60 in a few days, I have recently added more children to the son and daughter to whom I gave birth.
There is my “adopted” son, one of my son’s best friends, who joined us when his mom moved away at the end of high school. Since that time, my house has been his “home.” My daughter calls him her “bonus brother.” He came to me when he finished his military service and, even though he no longer actually lives here, he still comes home several times a week.
Often accompanying him is his girlfriend of about a year. She is the little sister my daughter always wanted. They always say that even if she and my adopted son break up, she will get custody of our family.
My daughter’s dear friend from college is here for family celebrations and many weekends. Her own, often chaotic family, lives a couple of hours away. After the six years that my daughter attended graduate school in the mid-west, the two young women are trying to make up for all the months when they did not see each other and to commiserate with each other about their sometimes crazy families.
And, now, my son’s girlfriend has come with him from Seattle to meet our family and friends. The occasion was the birthday party planned by my daughter and executed by all of them to celebrate my 60th birthday. A crazy initiation into the extended family and many friends who fill my life, but all agreed that that my son’s girlfriend is a “keeper.” I think she is “the one.”
Yesterday, my nephew arrived for the day from New Hampshire with his wife, daughter, son and puppy to help celebrate my big day, but mostly to see my son and meet his girlfriend. My brother and his son came for a few hours to enjoy the time with family. Last night, the house was filled with the “lost boys” who, as always, left huge sneakers scattered by the front door and made a dent in the food left over from the party. The big difference from a decade ago is that they are no longer boys; a fiancée was included in the group. They gathered in the family room to watch something on HBO or Showtime, just as they used to gather to watch The Sopranos, their now deep voices drifting up the stairs to my room, in bursts of laughter or in needling remarks directed at my son, holding court, as always, from his recliner near the fireplace.
My daughter and her friend were giggling and whispering in her room down the hall. I slipped into sleep with that now rare feeling of peace, knowing everyone I held most dear was safe at home with me.
This morning, while the children slept, I arose and got ready to go to shul in Saratoga, as I do most Monday mornings. The warbling of the robins and the hint of magnolia blooms outside my bedroom, as well as the impending start of my sixtieth year on Earth, caused me to reflect on my life so far.
I had completed my first dream list by the age of 27. Travel to Europe to see the Pieta and the David was on the top of the list and that was done by 21. Completion of law school and passing the bar exam came the year I turned 25. My husband and I bought our first house, with an upstairs bathroom, when I was 27 years old.
I’ve made a good start on my second dream list, one that took me the next 25 years to compile. I finally learned to balance my checkbook a few years after my husband died. At the age of 55, my first non-legal work, a romance short story, was published. My dream of climbing all 46 Adirondack High Peaks is on hold until I am in better shape, but I have hiked up one of them and I am working on getting into shape to climb the other 45. I don’t know if I will create a third dream list to carry me through the next 25 years.
I’ve never been bored with my life. Unhappy, stressed, depressed, anxious, blissful and content, but never bored. The Chinese have a curse, I believe, that one should live in interesting times. If that is the case, I have been cursed with an interesting life. I prefer to think of it now as having been blessed.
The best man I ever knew loved me the best. I could not ask for more in the love department, although I do wish that I had had more years with him. I now think I would like to fall in love one more time, for the last time in my life.
My children, all of them, are complete. They do not need me very much  anymore. That was my most recent realization, happening within the last few days. Of course, they still seek my advice. They still want to be home for at least some of the major holidays. They will still let me give them money for gas, buy their contact lenses, postage and lunch and handle their traffic tickets. But, they have created their own dream lists and taken steps to bring those dreams to fruition. They have formed relationships with each other, with the important people in each other’s lives and with people who love them for who they are, with no input from me or each other. They have started worrying about me as adult children are wont to worry about “aging” parents. I think they have conversations about my well-being that I don’t hear about, those “what-do-we-do-about-mom” conversations that we had with spouses and/or siblings about our own parents. The thought of this makes me chuckle and it gives me peace because I know they will always be on my side. They will follow my wishes about my future and likely will be frustrated, amused, anxious and loving, much the way I have been about them for the last 32 years.
Now, I’ve finally come to realize that I am the most important person in my life. I need to take care of me. That being said, I now need to figure out what that means. What do I need and what do I want? These are complex, yet simple, questions for a brisk spring day.
I just want to live the rest of my life. I can’t wait to see what will happen.

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Widows-R-Us

It is a small, almost exclusive club: Widows-R-Us. There is only one, grisly requirement for membership: your husband must be dead. If you re-marry, you can stay in the club, because once you are a widow, you are always a widow.
I was the founder and sole member for over ten years. Then a friend’s husband died on their kitchen floor from a bee sting. Our casual friendship deepened into a best friendship, given our now unseverable bond. My friend brought in a woman who had become her friend about the same time. We had not known each other before, but now we shared the kinship of sorrow and loss. Her husband had died from a long battle with leukemia a few years after mine. Now we were three.
Another friend lost her husband a few years later, not to the cancer he had beaten but to an infection that could not be controlled given his weakened auto-immune system. Then we were four.
All these husbands had been relatively young; mine was the youngest at 35. None was older than 50. We were not traditional widows, we had been married for only 10 or 15 or 20 years. We had young children or teenagers, Social Security was nowhere on our horizon, we were still making mortgage payments and saving for college. We did not fit in with traditional widows’ groups; we were the age of the children of those widows. We forged on alone, coming together from time to time, for bagels on Saturday morning, movies on Friday night, and late night phone calls when it all seemed too much to bear.
One of us remarried, one became engaged to a high school sweetheart, one has not dated and I waited until I was 50 to commence my decade of marathon dating. Eventually, my own mom joined our merry band of mourners when my dad died at 76. I could always get Mom to laugh by referring to us as “the Merry Widows.”
At 58, I decided to go on a dating hiatus. I started to reconnect with my inner self. I became a regular at Monday and Thursday early morning services. There I met a woman who was saying Kaddish for her recently deceased husband. They had been married for 30 years when he died suddenly, shortly after his retirement. We became good friends, sharing the bonds of religion and common tragedy. And our group expanded again.
Recently, we attended together the funeral of a 97-year old gentleman from our shul. He and his wife had been married for 52 years. There seemed to be less grief and more joy at this funeral than any other I had attended. The deceased had been joking and singing until a week before his death from pneumonia. He left life the same way he had lived it: on his own terms. While we both felt a deep sense of loss for this sweet man, it was difficult to mourn.
Now, his widow attends services on Thursday mornings, catching a ride with another couple who are members of our shul. She is tiny, frail, well into her late 80’s. We sit near her so that we can say the Mourner’s Kaddish along with her. We support the newest and oldest member of our sorority of sorrow; it’s what we do.
Last week, I mentioned at the breakfast we share at shul after services , that I was heading to the Social Security office in Schenectady to sign up for Surviving Spouse benefits since I was fast approaching 60. If you are a widow or a widower, you can collect the Social Security benefits due your deceased husband or wife when you turn 60, you don’t have to wait until 62. You can then collect your own benefits, if they are greater, when you turn 62.
My friend and another woman, who it turns out, lost her first husband to divorce then death, both walked me through the process. “Go to Glens Falls,” they said, “it is much cleaner and safer than Schenectady and is about the same distance from Saratoga Springs. They are very helpful there and you will be in and out in no time.” The woman whose husband died after their divorce then told me something I had not known: if you qualify for surviving spouse benefits at 60 (or 50 if you are disabled) and begin collecting the benefits, you will not lose them even if you re-marry. Damn. Maybe I will have to start dating again!
After an hour-long interview, I left with a packet of papers, including my enrollment in Social Security. Starting on May 24, one month after my 60th birthday, I will receive a handsome benefit from the government based upon my late husband’s earnings. It made me sad to think of how hard he had worked to build his law practice, only to die in the middle of his most profitable year. I had been the major bread-winner in our family during the ten years of our marriage.
“Don’t worry,” I would tease him, “I plan to retire when I am 55. My salary will have topped out by then. You can still work, though, since you will be making more than me in your successful law practice. I expect you to support me in the manner to which I plan to become accustomed.” We would both laugh at my prediction.
I smiled into the sun that was breaking through the clouds as I drove home from Glens Falls last Thursday. As I had “threatened,” my dear, departed husband was now taking care of me once again. And I smiled, too, because my new “widow” friends had steered me in the right direction and I would share the information I had gathered with the other members of our club. It’s what we do.

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