Fifty-five … eligible for the senior discount: a free drink with a meal purchase at KFC and Whataburger, free coffee at McDonalds, and 10% off at Chili’s, Dairy Queen, and IHOP. Even 10% off at Goodwill (Yah! … that was sarcastic, in case you don’t know me well), Ross and Michaels and 15% off at Kohls and Belks one day a week.
A month ago, I looked forward to this birthday. I planned to use the vinyl cutter at work to make myself a jersey with a large number 55 emblazoned on it. When people asked me about the number, I planned to proudly say it was my age.
Apparently, to most people I don’t look 55. I don’t have the gray hair that many of my former classmates do, though I do have to pluck the occasional gray eyebrow hair. My skin has very few wrinkles. I attribute that to religious sunscreen use and to my twice daily reading sessions in a hot bath Darryl calls the lobster boil, which are like two daily facials. The extra pounds I carry around probably fill in some wrinkles, too. I sometimes get shocked looks from people when I volunteer my age or mention I have been married almost thirty-five years. They will ask, “Did you get married when you were ten?”
Most of the time I don’t feel 55. I think that’s partly because I didn’t have kids. I’ve missed some of those milestones that tend to make people feel older. I haven’t watched my progeny go through grade school or graduate college, get married and have babies, like many of my friends have. I haven’t witnessed their failure to launch or failed marriages that led to them moving back home. (That might explain the absence of gray hair, too.)
I also think it has to do with the fact that, with the exception of babysitting and a high school job at Colonial Motor Freight Lines, I have never worked for anyone else. CRC Printing Co., was launched by my dad in 1984 while I was a student at UNCC and I’ve been there since day one. I’d get up early, get my college classes over with in the mornings, and head to the shop to work as many hours as I could and still have time to study. I worked hard in college and graduated in three and a half years with a BS degree in English and a minor in Sociology. After graduation, I decided to stay with the family business. I never went through layoffs, downsizing, job searches, or competition to advance in my career.
The last year and a half of college, I was also a wife. I married my high school sweetheart, Darryl, in 1985. In 1987, we stole him away from another printer he worked for in Charlotte. Since then we have worked together every day. Dad retired in 2002. Darryl and I have now run the business alone for more years than Dad was there. We’re together more than any couple I know and, yet, we get along – most of the time – better than most couples I know. I think our long and happy marriage has kept me feeling young. I haven’t gone through the heartbreak of separation and divorce like more than half of people my age.
Until now, the biggest heartbreak of my life came at age 36. I lost my 62-year-old mom, my best friend, to a heart attack on August 12th, 2001. I almost didn’t live to see 37. I’ve told that story in an earlier blog post, so I won’t dwell on it here. I’ll just say it has gotten easier to deal with through the passage of time. I wouldn’t say time has healed the wound, but that I’ve learned to live with the gaping hole in my heart and life that her death, so young, caused me. I feel like I aged more in the year following her death than I have in the last ten years.
Back in February, when I thought about being only a month away from 55, I looked forward to this birthday. I planned to spend it at the beach in that jersey with the big 55 on the front. (I try to spend my birthday and my mom’s birthday in late November at the beach every year since it was our happy place.) Darryl and I planned to stay with my brother at his house in Little River, to spend the day with our toes in the sand at Cherry Grove Beach and eat my birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant, The Sea Captain’s House. I didn’t ask for any elaborate gift. I just wanted a gift card so I could get a new pair of my favorite tennis shoes, Brooks, at Dick’s Sporting Goods. I looked forward to the way the ocean soothes the kinks out of my shoulders and washes my stress away.
And then the world changed in a matter of a week in early March. A virus from China crept onto U.S. soil in the bodies of innocent travelers and shut down our entire society. In the space of two weeks, I have gone from looking forward to this day, from my biggest worry being where we would go out to eat dinner, to worrying that we won’t be able to keep our small business alive through a month or more of government mandated shut down of our society. Instead of getting that deep, restful sleep I always get at the beach, I’m at home, awake at 4:30AM, chewing the inside of my cheek to pulp, anxious, scared, and sad. Instead of feeling happy about celebrating my 55th birthday, I feel like I was standing in the middle of the road, unaware, and got hit by a semi doing 55 mph. Today I feel every minute of 55. Life as I knew it, the carefree times feel over.