I lay the black plastic cloth across my parent’s table, following up with black paper plates, bold white lettering and colorful confetti popping from the center of each individual circle. Napkins coordinate the overall theme and silverware is placed at each dark seat. As a final touch, my mother hands me single black roses to lay across each plate, the petals dyed specifically for the occasion.
“This is hilarious!”
Our house is hosting a birthday party for one of my father’s work colleagues, and in between the important tasks of listening to Richard Marx and studying for my 9th grade English exam, I’m helping with the set-up.
Standing back, I look over the scene and the wide banner hanging from the ceiling like a giant grin:
Over The Hill
At the head of the Table of Death, a cane leans precariously against the black plastic, awaiting the Birthday guest of honor.
It looks just like the one I gave my father for his 40th, except mine had a rearview mirror and a red horn that honked loudly as I squeezed.
40 is SO old.
A few days ago, I was at a game gathering in Central Park with friends. We were enjoying Balderdash and Frisbee in the early evening July air. The nervous subject of age came up, as it tends to in performer circles, complete with career conversations and aspirations. Some hesitated before admitting their age, but all knew I had just celebrated my 40th.
“NO one is as old as Nikol!”
In that gathered circle, this was the truth.
But, why didn’t I feel that I was?
I remember a time when I would weave the conversation into whatever windy path necessary to avoid telling the truth. I married young at 22, and throughout my twenties and thirties, most people would look at my wedding ring and assume I was engaged.
There seemed to be a routine order of questions, that varied rarely no matter who stared at my finger:
Are you married?
How long have you been married?
How old were you when you got married, like 12 years old?
And then the best for last:
Do you have children?
As a performer, I knew I looked younger than I was, but had so much fear as I aged in my thirties that my true age would hurt me in my career. If I read in my twenties, would they not cast me if they knew I was really 35? Would they still want me if they knew how old I was?
On my 36th Birthday, I got off the pill, and decided it was time to really embrace my age, and the future I wanted. I started to do more professional choreography, and even had a side career in fashion that I was hoping would build a foundation for the family I was ready to have.
But, I wasn’t getting pregnant.
I began to develop deep shame around my age. My 37th Birthday came and went and when the questions began with, “Is that an engagement ring?”, I was usually crying by the time the subject of children came around.
My performance career was actually booming, but I wasn’t comfortable in my skin.
I felt old.
Then, my world turned upside down, and I suddenly realized what my body had been trying to tell me for over a year.
My marriage was over.
I took off the ring, ceasing the questions.
Now I offered my story to everyone I met, and it usually began with, “I was married for 15 years”. I was beginning the conversation with my age. I wanted to understand how I got here, and I was done with the windy avoidance path.
How would you like to celebrate your birthday this year?
I described my day in detail, knowing I wanted to sky-dive, and when I got to the ” Word for the Year” page, I didn’t even think twice:
I told everyone I was planning on jumping out of a plane, and waited for July 25th to arrive.
Today, I look at the folded card stock in bright pinks and purples from my friends and family. Many bought me bird and butterfly themed cards and one shows a dancer holding up her skirt to announce:
Life Begins at 40.
Around my neck is a beautiful charm from one friend that reads:
Girl on Fire
Around my wrist is a silver bangle from my nanny that reads:
A Lifetime of Luck
And in a tall glass vase stand several thick and vibrant sunflowers, handed to me on my birthday party dance floor by my cast of El Laurel de Apolo.
There are roses from my best friend from high school, but they are a deep red, not black.
At fourteen, I gazed upon adults in wonder and confusion, their age a complete mystery. Busy with my sneaker phone and Aqua Net, the message I saw was 40 equaled a black rose and a cane.
But, when I placed my legs outside a plane at 10, 000 feet as the sunshine blazed down on this birthday, I felt something entirely different.
I felt alive.
So I entered the day, and this new year, in free fall.