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Apr 25

When Our Bodies—and Time—Betray Us

Recently, our daughter, Owen, 28, followed by her older brother, Jesse, 30, got married within two months of each other. While both were joyous celebrations—and a long time coming—I experienced a massive crash after the festivities. And I’m not just talking about the emotional kind. My right hip went out. Suddenly, the hip simply didn’t work right; putting any weight on it resulted in wonky instability and an excruciating, ice-pick-to-the-joint bolt of pain. The MRI was ugly.

Admittedly, I overdid it on both counts, topping off the frenzied wedding preparations with hours of reckless dancing at the receptions. My hip was already hurting but damn it, I was going to chug a glass of wine, pop some Advil and rock out!

Not surprisingly, I’m now using a cane on good days, crutches on bad ones. I can no longer walk the dog, my favorite pastime and main source of exercise, forcing Michael, my reluctant husband, to take over.

“You’re the dog person,” he reminds me daily as I gimp to the pool. He feels particularly unmanly walking little Buffett, our fluffy Bichon, around the neighborhood in sight of “real” men walking huge Labs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Great Danes.

At first, I was attributing my crash to an unexpected, delayed reaction to the empty nest, the poignant realization that with each of our adult children’s milestones, my husband and I are fading. Also, I’m no doubt experiencing a normal come-down from a high. But since I’m now relatively crippled, and the “kids” are moving so definitively into their grown-up lives, I suspect that this double-whammy is a symbolic transition into another life stage that I have stubbornly refused to acknowledge. My body is weakening, and I feel demoralized— shocked, really. This doesn’t jibe with my identity. I can see my husband and children looking at me askance, treating me a bit too delicately. Who am I now, anyway?

Could this be depression? I am not a depressed person; I might be sad for a day or two, but I never live there. This time, I’m not so resilient; it’s out of character.

Unlike my husband, who cratered after the kids left for college, moping around the house and peering mournfully into their empty rooms, I was afire with a reinvention of self: in graduate school on the road to becoming a psychotherapist. At last, I was getting back to myself, freed up from the mind-numbing, domestic duties of motherhood. I could think again, and have intellectual discussions. I could write academic papers and give sharp Power Point presentations. I was, once again, a contender!

And now, I’m happily engaged in my profession, in a private practice with a group of like-minded professionals. In terms of the weddings, I was delighted. I love my new son- and daughter-in-law, both of who have been part of our family for many years. Even better, they all live here in Austin, as does our youngest, Sam, and his girlfriend Abby. What’s to pine about?

And then I began to sort it out. Our children’s marriages are monumental life events for us as well as them. When our children marry, our roles shift. We are sidelined in a way that may seem subtle at first, but which becomes more concrete over time. We are no longer the ultimate authority, the buffer between them and the world, the essential caretaker of their identities. They are, in a word, launched. It’s another dreaded time marker, of—dare I say it?—growing old, or old-ER.

That’s how it should be, right?

But my hip is another matter entirely—the first physical domino, I fear, of many to fall. What’s next? In favoring the bad hip, am I wearing out the other one? And what about my knees? I am not accustomed to being compromised. After a second medical opinion, I just received the grave news: hip replacement. Already? I have gone out of my way to stay fit, eat right, get eight hours’ sleep. But there’s no arguing with osteoporosis and now, osteo-arthritis.

When the children were young, I used to picture myself as the Sun—radiant, powerful, even indestructible—with the smaller planets of my children, and even my husband, orbiting around me. Now I fear I’ve become a faint, distant star, light years away, losing my brilliance as I die a slow, inconspicuous death. Get out the violins!

There is good news, though: the modern “anterior total hip replacement,” a much less invasive procedure in which the surgeon enters through the front of the hip, bodes well for a speedier and complete recovery. In a matter of weeks, I would presumably be confiscating Buffett’s leash from Michael and hitting the greenbelt. And in a couple of years, Michael and I should get another shot at significance—of the grandparent kind.

So I refuse to be trapped in the “tyranny of now,” in the words of Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck. Instead, I have every intention of tapping into the “power of yet!”