I’ve become invisible. I like it.
NASHVILLE — There are things I miss about being fertile. A waistline. Hair thick enough to hide my pink scalp and skin fitted enough to prove I have bones. Ovulation — those heady days each month when every cell was vibrating, when just the brush of my husband’s arm against mine could make unloading the dishwasher feel like foreplay. I truly miss ovulation.
I also miss sleeping. I remember sleep with such fondness. I fell asleep once leaning against the warm knees of the boy sitting behind me at a high-school football game. Back when I was fertile, I could close my eyes at night and wake up eight hours later, sometimes nine, feeling perfectly happy. Behold the bright new day! See how it reaches toward the horizon in all its hopeful promise!
Now my internal thermostat is broken. I wake up to throw off the covers and lie there, wondering if my beleaguered country can survive the cataclysm that has befallen it, if the Earth itself can survive the convulsion it is undergoing. Feeling old and tired and very worried — that’s not a recipe for hope.
For the last few years, my husband and I were living in a dog hospice, caring for the ancient dachshund we inherited when my mother died and the ancient hound/retriever/shepherd mix who helped us raise our sons. This summer we had to say goodbye to both of them. I walk through the rooms of our quiet house now with a constant lump in my throat.
“Maybe we need to travel more,” my husband said.
“Maybe we need a puppy,” I said.
All that energy, all that untrammeled wiggling, cuddling, licking love — a puppy is the very personification of hope. But when I filled out the adoption application for a local animal-rescue organization, their website kicked it back with a note that read, “Validation errors occurred.” The “error,” it turns out, was my age. Under the field where I had typed “56,” the website had noted (in bright red letters, lest I miss the note), “This number is too large.”
This number is indeed too large for some things, but I’m grateful to have reached it. I’ve buried too many friends who were younger than I, and I feel more keenly than ever the bounty of this beautiful, temporary life.
The pyrotechnics of youth may be gone, but I have learned that there’s no aphrodisiac like long love, like the feeling of knowing and being known, of belonging to a beloved’s body as fully as you belong to your own.
And it’s easier now to shrug off failure. It’s easier to shrug off most other things, too: missed opportunities, the unwarranted anger of others, fear of looking like a fool. A person who is not afraid of looking like a fool gets to do a lot more dancing.
Why did I ever worry about whether my party dress was enough like everyone else’s party dress to be appropriate without being too much like everyone else’s party dress to be derivative? When bangs were in fashion, why did I ever cut my own bangs with the sewing shears?
I was never a woman who turned heads, but menopause has made me invisible, and I love being invisible. Why did I ever care if strangers thought I was pretty? Worse, why didn’t I think I was pretty at an age when everyone is pretty? “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26,” wrote Nora Ephron in “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” “If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.”
I don’t know if it’s menopause or simply aging, but time’s winged chariot has freed me from bikinis, among other things. Life is full of obligations that can’t be shirked, but always there are “obligations” I’m not obliged to do. No, I don’t want to sit on that panel. No, I don’t want to attend that fund-raiser. No, I don’t want to go to that party. The days are running out, faster and faster, and I have learned that every yes I say to something I don’t want to do inevitably means saying no to something that matters to me far more — time with my family, time with my friends, time in the woods, time with a book.
For many women, menopause can be far more brutal, but for me even the insomnia has been a kind of gift, if only because the gorgeous world is most gorgeous in the first light of dawn. The songbirds, their fledglings hungry from a long night of fasting, are most active and most garrulous at sunrise. The doe and her spotted fawn have not yet found a cool place to settle under the trees, and the bullfrogs are still booming out their baritone disputes. The webs the micrathena spiders have spun in the darkness have not yet been torn by falling leaves and wind. The filaments, stirring in the irregular light, are their own little suns.
The night I learned I was too old to adopt a rescue puppy, I woke in the dark and headed to a nearby lake at sunrise. A host of rough-winged swallows were scooping gnats from the air above the water. Three great blue herons and two little green herons all stood still as sentries on the shore. A raccoon hauled itself onto the bank, shedding a shower of water drops that gleamed like diamonds. A pair of fledgling barred owls demanded to be fed while their sharp-eyed parents watched the ground, waiting for some small creature to trundle through the underbrush. Nearby, a chipmunk was crouching motionless under a fallen tree.
And when I got home, there was an email waiting for me from the animal rescue organization: It said I am not too old to adopt a puppy at all.