By WENDY HODGE
Author’s Note: I wrote the following article four years ago. My life has changed a lot since then – I’ve had more birthdays, I have a new job and I finally crossed paths with the man who will have my heart for the rest of my life. Things are good. They’re more than good. But it took going through the not so good stuff to get here. I’m too old for some things, but I’m not too old to know how miraculous my life is and to be so grateful for it every single day.
If you should ever decide, on a September Friday night, to head from Opelika to Auburn, remind yourself NOT to drive by the Auburn High School football stadium. Bumper. To. Bumper. But, this past Friday night, I was on a mission. I needed a snow cone from Sno Biz.
Did you know they put cream on snow cones now? Not Cool Whip, not whipped cream, but REAL cream. From a cow. They keep it in a condiment bottle and squeeze it on top of the ice. Sno Biz – God bless it.
When I finally made it through the traffic, I told the girl behind the counter I wanted coconut and banana flavor with EXTRA cream.
“It’s 50 cents,” she said.
“Give me a dollar’s worth.”
“You mean… like… twice more?”
“Yeah. Squeeze that bottle twice.”
She shot me a look, like a bartender eyeing someone they may have to cut off before the night is over.
“I’ve had a rough day. And I’m almost 50,” I said.
“I see,” was her reply.
It was true. Sunday is my birthday … The big ugly one after 49. And for a few weeks now, as the date has loomed closer, I’ve had this list in my head repeating itself like a bad song lyric. My own over-the-hill No. 1 single title “I’m Too Old.” It started simply enough. “I’m Too Old … to have grown kids.” “I’m Too Old … to run 5 miles a day like I used to.” Every day, though, I added to the list until it became one endless chorus of unfinished business that a 50-year-old simply mustn’t even consider. “I’m Too Old … to have a baby, to become an astronaut, to join the military …” I didn’t necessarily want to do any of these things, but knowing I no longer had the option was weighing on me. And that surprised me. I normally see something to be grateful for whenever possible, but this “50” business was skewing things off center.
My hope was that a snow cone would set things straight. And those first cream-covered bites were excellent. Truly. Feeling slightly better, I headed back toward Opelika, eating as I drove. My cell phone rang. I answered to hear my friend Scott’s strong, happy voice. No matter what, Scott says hello like he’s the happiest guy in the world. I like that.
Turns out Scott was not happy. Far from it. “My best friend committed suicide a few days ago,” he told me. “Oh, Scott, I’m sorry … what happened?” “No one knows. He left no note, no clue, nothing. Just … ended his life.” He was 43. There was silence while I let this sink in.
“I called to give you your birthday present a few days early,” Scott said.
“Hang up, and don’t answer when I call back.”
“I’m leaving you a message for your birthday. Wait until you stop driving and play the message.”
“Um… ok… thanks,” I said, and the connection was broken.
Without planning to, I steered for the fountain downtown. It’s where I go. And I thought of Scott’s friend, of the hopelessness he must have felt, of the boundless grief his parents and friends are enduring. And I realized the next line of my over-the-hill song should be … “I’m Too Old … to forget what a gift it is to wake up morning after morning, enough mornings to add up to 50 years.” My mother always says, “Getting old beats the alternative.” And she’s right.
As I drove through downtown Opelika, I remembered this time last year. Just after I turned 49, a date took me to a comedy club called No Shame. Every Friday night, the club has about a dozen time slots open for amateurs to sign up and perform — stand-up comedy, singing, original poetry — whatever talent they choose to share with an audience of about 150 people. There are two rules — be respectful of others and do not be embarrassed. Not knowing what to expect, we sat through a couple of truly funny comics, one enthusiastic but mediocre country singer and an 80-year-old man who rambled on for five minutes about his gout and the Vietnam War.
Just as we were about to slip out the back door, a college girl took the stage. She held a package of Oreos in front of her and said, “My name is Sarah. For the next 15 minutes, I will be whoever you need me to be … an ex-girlfriend, a parent, someone who has wronged you … anyone you have unfinished business with, anyone you need to say something to, let me be that person. If your words are meaningful and touch my heart, I’ll give you an Oreo.”
The audience was quiet for a moment, all of us looking around to see if she would have any takers. Finally, a young man approached the stage. “Let’s pretend you’re my roommate, Frank. You stole 20 bucks from my wallet … and my girlfriend. I really hate you, Frank,” he said. The audience laughed, but Sarah just stood and waited. “I guess it’s all good, though. I mean … I forgive you.” He was rewarded with a cookie.
Several more people took a turn, most of them choosing an ex to accuse or question. One girl let Sarah be the father who abandoned her. She was brutally honest and walked away with two cookies.
Then, like a whisper that’s so close to your ear it startles you, I heard my own voice tell me, “It’s your turn.” Without pausing, I stood. My date reached out his arm to stop me, but I slipped away from his fingers. I don’t remember getting to the stage. I do remember the way the noise of the audience fell away, and all there was in the world was me and Sarah.
“You are me,” I said. Sarah tilted her head slightly, questioningly. “You’re me, my teenage self.” She smiled slightly and waited. I leaned forward and whispered in her ear, “You need to know and remember that you are enough. Just as you are. You are enough.” Sarah’s clear eyes looked into mine, and I touched my forehead to hers … like a blessing on the girl I used to be.
I stepped back, and with tears sliding down her face, Sarah handed me the entire box of Oreos. There was loud applause and shouts of “Tell us!” as I walked back to my seat. My date was not clapping. He looked embarrassed. “He broke the No Shame rule,” I thought as I reached for my purse and walked out. A few moments later, I was on the sidewalk, breathing in the cool night air, and my date was walking quickly to catch up.
“That was interesting,” he said. “You do realize you’re a bit too old for that, right? Everybody else on that stage is 20-something.”
In that moment, I knew I WAS too old — too old to spend another moment with someone who would reach out to hold me back from saying what needs to be said. Instead, let there be a hand at my back, pushing me forward, supporting my effort and clapping at the sound of the words I need to say. “I’m Too Old … to settle for less, and just old enough to know I deserve so much more.” We all do, don’t we?
And so I’ve arrived at my spot by the fountain, and I’ve pressed play on Scott’s voicemail message. His strong, clear, tenor voice breaks the air, and he is singing Happy Birthday. In Italian. I crank the volume up on speaker phone.
As the sun sinks behind the courthouse, with my own Italian serenade drifting up into the night sky, I tilt back my head and drink the last drops of coconut and cream. I’m just old enough to know how amazing my life is and too old to let myself forget it. Happy Birthday — You are enough.