By Charles K. Poole
February 25, 2018, will be my 55th birthday, which makes a few days ago my half-birthday.
Why, you may be wondering, is this something you’d be interested in?
Truth is, it may not be, no matter what I’m about to say, and that’s OK. But maybe once I finish, my thoughts will have some meaning and value to you.
I’m thinking about my birthday six months in advance because I need to think about it. It’s a big birthday, you see. Not like when someone turns 30, 40, 50, and so on. My birthday doesn’t represent that kind of hallmark. Instead, it is a number I’ve struggled with for more than 25 years now; a number that serves as a constant reminder of my mortality.
That’s because to date (excluding my grandparents), no member of my born-into family has lived beyond the age of 55, beginning with my father, continuing with my mother, and most recently culminating with the last members of my family, my younger sister and older brother, who were 48 and 55, respectively.
As you can imagine, I have a lot of feelings about turning 55. There’s a lot of uncertainty, of course. And though I’m not controlled by it, there have been moments when I fear it. But mostly, I’m just confused because I don’t know how to feel about it when it occurs to me that I inch closer to that number every moment, every day.
The most difficult thing about being in this position is constantly trying to determine how to just live. We’re all told to prepare for all the things we’re supposed to do as we grow older, but because of 55’s history in my life, I often find myself questioning whether that’s even necessary for me. Or, as I could argue makes sense, do I literally live in the moment because chances are I will only need to think about the future in terms of months, not years? See my point? I’m constantly bouncing between practicality and possibility, and all that bouncing around gets tiresome, fast.
I’m an action-oriented man; give me a problem and I’ll work my ass off to find a solution, and usually will. But this problem? It’s beyond my typical resourcefulness because I don’t have an actual problem to solve right now, only the possibility that one could arise and take my life unexpectedly, as was the case with my sister; or painfully, as it did my brother. My mom lived nearly nine years after doctors told her she had six months to a year, so hers was a different story, but it still resulted in the same outcome: When she died in 1992 she was what? Fifty-five. Dad was only 33 when he passed away.
As I said goodbye to my sister and brother in 2014 and 2015, I promised that I would live my life in such a way that I can do the things they weren’t able to do; go where they hadn’t ventured; and make the most of every moment and opportunity that came my way. For the most part, I’ve done that. Still, the realization that I’m approaching the number I’ve lived with so long now, the number that signifies for me the time the clock runs out if you’re member of this Poole clan, is hard to overlook. I’m always aware of it, consistently annoyed by it, and always just a little disappointed in myself that I haven’t done more with the time I’ve had.
About a week or so ago, I took some time and thought about that. And while I was at it, I asked for guidance. Meditation and prayer center me, and given where I was emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually at that moment, being centered made all the difference. After a while, I saw my future more clearly, and I realized that something in which I inherently believe and always tell others needed to be said: Worrying is a waste of a great imagination, and solves nothing.
Worrying. Solves. Nothing.
So instead of worrying I decided to write about it. And that, dear reader, is why I’m sharing this on my half-birthday.
I am determined to celebrate 55 and beyond with body and mind intact, capable of living up to the promise I made my family in every way. I travel more, reconnect with friends, and go places I’ve never gone just for the experience. I rekindle relationships, forcing myself to say “Yes,” to things I would typically say “No” to. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Living my life is the only and best choice I can make, no matter what history was, or could be, regarding my time on Earth.
God knows when my time will run out. While I’m here, while life still courses through my veins and encourages my heart to beat and my lungs to breathe, I am responsible for ensuring that I don’t squander that life today, tomorrow, or for the next 50 years … if I have them. My mama used to say what a shame it is that life is wasted on the living, and now I understand why.
How sad is it that while we’re here we spend so much time concerned about when we won’t be? Why don’t we open our eyes every day—with gratitude—and say, “I’m thankful for today?” Because we should. We really should. It’s a practice I’m becoming better at, but still working on every day.
I focus on that spirit of hope and possibility. No more fearing 55; I’m planning to survive it and thrive once I get there, and during every blessed moment I have after I get there. As someone who lived a life touched by great joy and immeasurable sadness and loss, I hold a great appreciation for living, but am not afraid of dying. My spirit tells me that regardless of when it happens, it means our work here is done. How much time we’ve been here doesn’t matter. What we do with it does.
I’ve decided to use mine for good, and not just my own. My journey brought me to this point in life seeking out ways to encourage authenticity, caring, and love in the world. I arrived at a place where I feel closer to total freedom than ever after my experiences and life lessons. The singer Tony Bennett said, “If you live long enough, life teaches you how to live it.” Well, it has taught me well. Now is the time to start teaching others.
Six months from now, God willing, I know what I’ll be doing. I’ll be celebrating life by living it. As I grew older, I came to understand that the only way to do that is by doing it. The only way to overcome fear and loss is to celebrate the life you have, the experiences you’ve known, and the opportunities you hope for in the future … even if that future is the next 30 seconds. When you think of life this way you learn to be more intentional, less judgmental, free of sadness, and more open to everything the universe offers.
I used to fear the number 55. Today, I’m no longer afraid of it or conflicted by it or about it. What I am is hopeful. Hopeful that however long I walk the earth, I find ways to provide service to others, share what I’ve learned, and never, ever, forget that part of the deal we have with God is that one day when our work here is done, we’ll get to come home. Not this earthly home, but the home where everything we valued here has no meaning, there. Nothing, that is, but love. Family. Friendship. And faith. Definitely faith.
Get ready, 55, because Charles K. Poole is heading your way with a clear head, open heart, and joyful spirit. But no fear. Definitely no fear. Beyond that, it’s in God’s hands.