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Middle-Age and the Meaning of Life: The Countdown Begins

August 29, 2008

Lately my lungs shut down while I’m sleeping. They just decide to stop working, like they’ve had enough and they’re not going to put up any longer with the unreasonable demands I’ve placed on them. They’ll show me who’s really in charge. I dream these nightmares of drowning, being strangled, choking, and dying. The worst part is that it happens during the deepest stages of sleep, when my body is in a state of paralysis. So that when I begin to emerge from the dream-state and actually become consciously aware that I’ve stopped breathing, I can’t even will myself out of the sleep. It seems to go on forever. I’m dying. But just before I pass out completely, my brain reflexively jump-starts the lungs back into action, like a hard-ass supervisor who returns to the shop floor after stepping out to the bathroom for a couple minutes. And I wake from these tortured states of suffocation with a desperate gasp of air, sucking back the life into my body. It’s unnerving.

Apparently, it’s called sleep apnea – a result of aging and sagging muscles in the back of my throat which are losing the ability to keep my breathing tubes propped open through the night. To be a bit more direct, it’s a sign that I’m getting old. I hear that other people who have this condition don’t even realize it because they sleep through it all, unconscious and unaware. But not me! I have the super-deluxe version, complete with 3-D graphics and surround sound.

I’m 47 years old. Half-way through my life. People respond in all sorts of strange and creative ways when they hit the dreaded “mid-life”, one of which is to deny it. Because 40 is the new 30, and I can mentally buy another 10 years, right? Well, my body doesn’t get fooled. I feel like I’m entering midlife. I swear, the minute I turned forty, it started – with my eyes – it was more difficult to focus on reading the fine print, so time for bifocals. That was harmless enough. But then, progressively over the next few years, a host of mysterious ailments and bodily changes began to manifest. Age spots, a bout of very painful shingles, a sudden jump in cholesterol level, more frequent aches and pains, more difficulty sleeping, and an inexplicable increase of wax in my ears. And to top it all off, the V-like physique I once sported so casually has been completely redistributed, and in generous proportions, throughout my body so that I now resemble more of a cartoon character than the athlete I once was. Somehow I’ve shrunk about an inch, my feet have grown by ½ size, and my gut has decided to bust out another 3 inches. Ok, it’s 4. Well, maybe six.

These annoying physical intrusions are like having several uninvited strangers show up at your house and move all the furniture around after you’ve spent years keeping it ever so orderly and clean. And then they decide to move in for good, because they like you so much. They’re ugly and sloppy and abrasive, but you can’t get rid of them. You’ve noticed from a comfortable distance how they’ve crashed other people’s houses, but you scoffed and swore they would never set foot near yours, since you have a much more expensive security system and all. But sooner or later they show up and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I remind my wife that a couple centuries ago forty-five years was the average life span for a man. Maybe we were not meant to live this long, to be forced to cram our youthful bounding souls into a decrepit and declining body. What’s happening?

I surveyed some of the men I work with who are also approaching the mid-point of their lives, yet nobody is quite as anxious about it as I am. “I still feel 18!” says the 53-year old head of sales and marketing, who is incredibly fit and trim and annoyingly happy. “I never really thought about it.” Says another oblivious 49-year old executive. Denial is what I’m calling it. They’re all in denial.

The daunting realization that I have lived this long and now the clock is ticking in the other direction sobers me. It scares me. I picture some giant hourglass in the heavens with my name on it that’s been flipped over to the other side. The countdown begins. And I am faced with the terrifying questions — Where did all those years go? What should I be doing with few good years that are still left? What was I meant to do with my life?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2008 8:52 am

    Bradley, this is a wonderful piece of writing.

    I’m sorry to hear that you’re “falling apart” physically, but these reflections say that you’re coming together quite well in other ways.

    Here’s to the second half of your life being fuller and richer than the first.

  2. Spencer Bullock permalink
    September 2, 2008 1:37 pm

    Brad,
    I’m right there with you buddy. We are exactly the same frightful age and I have a newsflash for you…we are well past the middle of our lives. That has a disturbing ring to it, doesn’t it?

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