Last week, I celebrated by 39th birthday. Yes, 39. That’s one year shy of the big 4-0. The last year of my 30s. If life was a rollercoaster ride, I’m about six clicks from the apex; the big plunge awaits me just on the other side. I looked around for music to mark the day, but didn’t find much to smile about.
There’s “39” by The Cure on their album Bloodflowers, which opens with the lines, “So the fire is almost out and there’s nothing left to burn. I’ve run right out of thoughts, and I’ve run right out of words as I used them up, I used them up.” Love you, Robert Smith, but no.
Then there’s “‘39” on Queen’s seminal album A Night at the Opera. It’s a song about a group of space travellers who leave for a year-long voyage. But, thanks to the time dilation effect in Einstein’s special theory of relativity, they are actually gone 100 years, and everyone they loved is either dead or aged when they return. Thanks, Brian May. I appreciate you using that degree in astrophysics to tell such a profoundly depressing story.
And let’s not even talk about “39” by Tenacious D. It’s too disgusting by half, so I’m not even going to link to it. Ick.
So, unfortunately, there’s no upbeat tune to mark the year. If you’d like to learn about why that is, I highly suggest the scientific research on the subject done by Ben Farrer. Fascinating stuff.
Thirty-nine isn’t a nice even number like 30 or 40. It’s not even a sweet midway number like 35. There’s no big event to mark it (like voting, drinking, renting a car, or watching your insurance premium finally go down). It, like ages 11, 27, and 31, just is. Heck, it isn’t even a prime number. I have to wait until 41 for that. But it does divide into three nice, even 13-year chunks, so I got to thinking about life that way.
What was the most significant thing, good or bad, that happened in each of those spans of time, and what has it taught me about life?
I had a pretty amazing childhood all told. No major traumas or losses to speak of. I had all the trappings and experiences common to an ’80s kid, so no complaints there. I’d have to say that moving twice before I reached the age of 13 was likely the most demanding thing I had to face. That involved me getting to know several groups of new people, making new friends, and learning the ropes of new schools (one of them the torturous experience that is junior high) in rapid succession.
It wasn’t always fun, but it taught me about the value of adaptability. I learned how to be observant and gained some interpersonal skills that have come in mighty handy ever since. By the time I entered the tweens, I was pretty much able to handle anything, socially speaking.
Ah, the golden age of young adulthood. Years filled with milestones and growth, new experiences and excitement. And what happened to me at age 25, the prime of my youth? I found out I have multiple sclerosis.
I won’t lie. That experience put a serious kink in my plans. My life after that was radically different than it was before my diagnosis. I am now well-versed in the language of neurology. I can read MRI results with the best of them. I have stuck myself nearly 1,500 times with a needle in order to take the Copaxone that keeps my disease under control. I’ve experienced brain fog and fatigue, vision problems and pins and needles.
Like moving every two or three years, MS took things from me, but it also has helped me in interesting ways. Because of MS, I’m braver. It taught me I could stand toe-to-toe with something frightening, and live to talk about it. Also, it’s made me kinder and more understanding because I’ve learned firsthand that not everyone who’s sick shows it and that many people are fighting battles I can’t see.
Finally, because of MS, I live each day with greater intentionality. I pay attention to the little things, never taking anything for granted, and—as a result—everything is richer, fuller, and more vivid. For that reason alone, MS has been a gift.
The post-MS decade and a third has seen its share of challenges, too. I’ve lost a job, lost a house, endured the shame of bankruptcy, and moved to another city that’s six hours away from my family. But don’t think things are all bad.
I’ve also changed careers, and now work as an editor (a job I couldn’t imagine having when I was in my 20s). My husband and I bought a lovely house and adopted two boys from the foster care system to fill it. All that risk-taking isn’t usually my bag, but multiple sclerosis has taught me that I can’t be afraid, that I have to be willing to stretch and take a chance if I’m going to make the most of the days, weeks, and years the good Lord has given me.
Here’s to the next 39 years.
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