From 40 to 50 at the Speed of Life: Ten Midlife Lessons I learned the Hard Way

Listen long enough to any group of women who have celebrated their milestone 40th birthday and among all the commiseration over dull complexion, new wrinkles, gray hair, thickening waists, fatigue, insomnia and just plain feeling like our bodies have betrayed us, you will hear the big four-O question, “What have you learned that’s made your life better after forty?”

The question speaks to our expectation of a payback for aging. We’re looking for the promised, porverbial wisdom, the quality of grace under pressure, the unshakeable confidence that makes losing our youth and finding our way worth it all.

For me, the decade between 40 and 50 felt like being adrift at sea without a boat. Sometimes the water was calm but very often waves pummeled me, rolling me beneath the surface to murky depths where I struggled to find which way was up, which way would bring me back to light and air.

My marriage had been foundering for a while, but it was just after turning forty that I separated from my husband of 23 years. One month after being on my own, I was fired from my job. Homeless and unemployed I wound up living in the upstairs bedroom of my parent’s home for six months.

Not long after finding a menial job and an apartment I could afford, my oldest daughter suffered congestive heart failure as a complication of childbirth. She was air-lifted to the nearest cardiac intensive care facility where she laid in a coma for three days. She recovered but my marriage flat-lined; the divorce was final six months later.

About mid-decade, I lost my mother-in-law, my own mother and then my father, all in one year’s time. Though none of them had been sick or frail, their ages ranged from 79 to 87. I knew they couldn’t live forever and I thought I was emotionally prepared for their deaths. I was not. Part of me will never fully recover.

As hard as those loss were, it was nothing compared to losing my 27-year-old stepson in a car accident; yes, I answered that 2 a.m. call—the one every parent dreads. It was repeated six months later when my 31-year-old son-in-law (to be) hit a deer and rolled his car. After the second time, you realize there are no reprieves for previous losses; the number of children you still have living is the same number of chances you have to answer that call again. That fact continues to take its toll. I swear I lose a year of my life every time my phone rings after a certain hour.

Then cancer came calling. Leukemia took a brother-in-law the year he was to begin enjoying retirement. A brain tumor (stage 4 glioblastoma) claimed another son-in-law who was only 37-years-old, leaving his wive bankrupted by medical expenses.

Two months before my 50th birthday, my second husband was diagnosed with inoperable acute coronary artherosclerrosis and congestive heart failure. He was given five years to live. I began preparing (in practical ways, not emotionally, never emotionally) for his death. Twice I followed the ambulance that was carrying him to the same cardiac intensive care unit where my daughter had recovered and my mother had died, never knowing which fate would be his his.

Fortune has smiled on my husband. At precisely five years from his diagnosis, cardiac bypass surgery became less of a risk to his survival than doing nothing—without it he’d die in months, with it, he had at least a chance of recovery. I am happy to say he has passed the expiration date first given by his doctors and together we are relishing every moment of this second chance for a second half of life.

Here are 10 things I’ve learned after 40:

  1. Never miss an opportunity to tell family and friends they are loved and appreciated because you never know when they might be taken from this life.
  2. Lust just happens, but love takes work. Love isn’t just something you feel, it’s what you do. It takes commitment, sometimes sacrifice and sometimes compromise, but it’s always an active choice.
  3. I am not responsible to provide anybody’s happiness but my own. It follows, that nobody else is responsible for mine, either. Happiness comes from within.
  4. My worth is not defined by the success of my parents, spouse, children and/or friends. It is not determined by what I do for a living. My worth is defined by remaining true to my values and goals.
  5. Nobody places any higher value on me than I first place on myself.
  6. People who judge me unfairly say more about themselves than they do about me.
  7. Whenever I have difficulty expressing kindness, compassion or understanding to others, its always my own ego getting in the way.
  8. I am the only person I can improve. To be honest, I’m lucky if I can make the changes I want for myself—let alone trying to change others. Who has the time?
  9. Every family is dysfunctional at some level. Learn to live with it and tolerate it in doses, because your family loves you. They miss you when you remove yourself from the portrait.
  10. Age is inevitable (there’s only one way to stop it), but your attitude about aging will determine how you feel every day. Think young, act youthful, make friends in all age groups, stay current on social topics and trends, and most of all, embrace the world with an loving heart.

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