I did not want to turn fifty-two.
For over twenty-three years since the death of my mom from melanoma, a form of skin cancer, when she was fifty-two years old, I feared turning that age.
I dreaded its arrival. I wondered: “What if the same thing happens to me?” I worried history would repeat itself.
I also felt pressure. If something were to happen to me this year, my daughters, now twenty-three and twenty-one, would think the women in our family have a tangible expiration date, that our family is cursed. I would never want that for them.
Whenever I thought about turning the age my mom was when she passed away, my whole body tightened with anxiety. Every cell in my body knew how afraid I was.
“How do you want to celebrate your birthday this year?” my husband asked me in a cheerful tone a few days before its arrival.
“Crawl into a hole and come out in a year,” was my initial response. He wasn’t amused.
I felt hopeless.
I’m someone who adores celebrating birthdays, and it felt strange to not want to celebrate this year. At the same time, not having my birthday wasn’t an option.
A couple of days before my birthday, still struggling with how to make this year a little more bearable, an idea came to me during the night. I woke up out of my sleep with these words whispering in my ear: “Dara, make this year about delight, not dread.”
I tossed and turned for the rest of the night, trying to process my newfound idea. When I woke up, I couldn’t shake the feeling this might be the solution to my crisis.
I wondered, could I really take something I’ve been dreading for decades, and, by shifting my mindset, view and experience it differently? What would this even look like?
My dread of this birthday isn’t just a random passing thought. It’s been lodged deeply inside of me for a very long. Could I have the power to reframe the situation?
I thought about this over the days leading up to my birthday, and decided to formulate a plan. I told myself: “I might as well try, what’s the worst that could happen.”
My birthday was coming, the time would pass anyway. I decided to try and help myself make the year a little less painful.
I have struggled with the death of my mom. It has been difficult to make peace with her passing at such a young age. She has missed seeing her children establish our own families and never got to know her grandchildren.
Then, there’s the guilt that comes from outliving her, something I desperately want to do.
I realized making the most of this year would be a great way to honor her. I didn’t want to waste my precious life dreading anything. Instead, I want to make the most of each day of my life.
My plan is all about making this year, my Year of 52, a year focused on doing things that make me happy and fill my heart with joy. This is what shifting from dread to delight means to me. It’s all about sprinkling intention into each month, finding the simple pleasures in everyday life, and grabbing onto it with both hands.
Sure, there will be big things I plan to do that will bring me happiness and joy. But, I’ll be spending most of my time in everyday life, and will focus on how to bring in more happiness and joy into each day.
I decided to assign a theme to each month, such as Giving and Service, Playfulness and Fun, and Cultural Exploration.
I hope to challenge myself, get out of my comfort zone, try new things, and embrace life.
So far, it’s been three months since I started this experiment. The theme for the first month was Physical Wellbeing.
Truth be told, since the pandemic, I haven’t been lifting weights or exercising as much as I used to and I can really tell a difference in my body. I’m also someone who manages stress by moving my body, and I was feeling stressed about my birthday.
That first month, I enjoyed trying new exercise classes, and even started working out with a trainer again. Being intentional about this helped me try new modalities that have become part of my daily life. I’ve been pushing myself out of my comfort zone, lifting heavier weights than I thought possible, learning how strong I really am.
One day, my trainer said to me: “Dara, I notice you tend to hold yourself back. You don’t like to increase the weight that I know you can do.”
She was right, and this made me think about other areas of my life. I realized I do tend to hold myself back sometimes, whether it be trying new foods or even going to new places.
Now that I know this about myself, I’m working on getting out of my comfort zone and pushing myself a bit. Not only am I getting stronger lifting heavier weights, I’m getting stronger every time I try something new.
Mindfulness was the theme of the second month. With my oldest daughter moving to Florida, over ten hours away, and my youngest daughter going to Italy for a semester abroad, to say I was feeling sad about being far from both of them is an understatement.
I knew I could use a little extra help with my mindfulness, and inserted this into my year sooner rather than later.
I created a new meditation space in my home, recommitted my daily morning routine, and reestablished my daily non-negotiable activities. As a result, I feel more grounded and centered.
I also decided to give myself permission to feel all the feels when saying goodbye to my daughters. In the past, I’ve been the kind of person to put on a happy face and say “I’m fine,” when I really wasn’t fine. Not anymore.
Instead, I allowed myself to be sad and cry, even when others around thought I should stop crying already. This helped me to release my sad emotions. I learned the only way to get to the other side is to feel our way through whatever it is. I am shocked at how quickly I rebounded after saying goodbye to them.
Focusing on my relationships and thinking about who I spend my time with was the theme of the third month. I thought a lot about how my friendships have changed over the past few years with the pandemic and becoming an empty nester.
Some friendships aren’t meant to last a lifetime, and that’s OK. There are different seasons to some friendships, people come into our lives and then sometimes leave, and knowing when to let go is important. It also makes space in our lives for new friends. Thinking about this and making sure my schedule reflects the people I truly care about has been very meaningful.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the year with excitement. I’m blessed I’m on this journey and instead of living with dread, I feel more happiness and joy. It’s a lesson for all of us. Being intentional about how we live our lives and making choices each day to help ourselves feel the way we want to feel really does work.
I hope to look back on this year and think about all the fun I had and how much I learned about myself. While I wish my mom had been able to live longer, I realize one way I can honor her memory is to make the most of each day of my life.
That’s what I’m committed to doing, one delightful activity at a time.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty-two Dara Kurtz left her twenty-year career as a financial advisor to focus on writing and speaking. She now has her own personal blog, Crazy Perfect Life, and is the author of I am My Mother’s Daughter: Wisdom on Life, Loss, and Love, Crush Cancer, and Living with Gratitude.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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