I said I would kill myself when I turned 55.
I was 28 years old and had only been paralyzed a few short weeks when I told Ian of my decision. He smiled a sort of sad, half smile, knowing I was very serious in that moment but also convinced that the years would soften my resolve. Still, suicide seemed completely reasonable to me. I was willing to give my present life over to my injury. I was willing to learn how to function and thrive inside my new existence. But I was unwilling to give it my future. The thought of aging while able-bodied was scary to me so the thought of doing it with a spinal cord injury caused panic, anger and tears—lots and lots of tears. I needed an end game; I needed an out. And 55 years old seemed like a great number
At 55 years old, my children would be grown. My husband would be young enough to find someone else that makes him happy and they could interact with the world together in a way that him and I could not. I would not have to deal with the realities of age on an already altered and unpredictable body. I would not become a burden. And—what was oddly important to me at the time—I wouldn’t have to say I rolled through life longer than I walked. It would be 28 years walking and 27 rolling. Yes, 55 was the right number.
As time passed and I better understood my injury and my body became more familiar, I didn’t dwell on my fears that surrounded aging quite as much. At some point along the way, I decided that I would extend my timeline to sixty years old. And then somewhere between years one and two, I stopped relying on that end date altogether.
Slowly I was able to envision myself aging with my injury. I could think about the prospect of having grandchildren without believing I would be incompetent as a grandmother. I could see the potential for adventure with my husband after our children were grown. I realized how lucky I would be to age after such a serious accident and injury—regardless of how many years I’d be rolling for. And I began to understand that I did not have to become obsolete with age.
Recently, my own grandfather had his 90thbirthday. On an average day, he is a grumpy old man calling bullshit to every little thing that isn’t exactly how he believes it should be. But we celebrated him anyways because, grumpy or not, he loves his family. And as we sat there that night, he was happy.
I watched him and thought about all of the years he had behind him and was reminded of my selfish plan to cut my own life short because it wasn’t going to be how I had imagined. I thought about how he lost his own wife when he wasn’t much older than 55—that certainly wasn’t in his plan. Or how he has outlived all but one of his six younger siblings. Or that if he had died at 55, I would only know him like I know my grandmother—through stories.
But he was here, at 90 years old. And maybe he let some of his experiences tarnish his outlook on life (or maybe he was always grouchy), but he could look around that room and see people from age 4 to 85 that cared about him. People he shared a history with. He was in their stories and they were in his. Even as a grouchy, semi-involved, 90-year-old man, he is not obsolete.
Aging is a privilege and everyone reading this knows of too many people who were denied the opportunity. It will unfold differently for me and my SCI will add hurdles to the process. But aging is full of unknowns for everyone and at some point, we all have to work with the story arc we’ve been given. That’s not to say it doesn’t still scare me—it scares the hell out of me. My point is, it’s worth the risk.