I turned 50-years-old yesterday.
That’s half-a-century. If I was 20, I would think 50 was close to death…but now that I’m here…I feel farther away from death then I did at 20. People say that time speeds up the older you get. But that’s not what I’m feeling. Being stuck in my house in the middle of a pandemic has afforded me a lot of time to sit and ponder what the last 50 years has meant to who I have become. What was significant? What did I think was significant at the time that is a total non-issue now? Who the heck am I anyway?
I’ve been digging through old photos. I’m not a fan because I am fiercely sentimental and I am often peeved to be reminded about what I don’t have anymore. I don’t have that cute granny house in Saskatoon, I don’t have my brother, I lost touch with Corinne, Garry killed himself, I lost that piece of jewelry I’m wearing, I had a bad falling-out with that person, my skin isn’t that smooth anymore, I loved that shirt! Peeved. I’m especially struck by photos of our dining room table, with people jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder devouring one of mom’s amazing meals, and realizing that every single person in the photo is dead. All of them important to me, and my story, and none of them still here to see how the life of Carla Powell is playing out.
Much of my life has been incredibly solo and I’ve really put a lot of energy into trying to ascertain why. I have to acknowledge at 50, that I will never have a child of my own and, most likely, I’ve missed out on the white wedding. I fully appreciate that I have been solidly gifted in other ways; but, family was a goal, and it’s the one thing I set out to do that I never accomplished. Decades passed with such mammoth waves of tragedy and responsibility that anyone that was with me would have probably been washed away with the surf.
After university, I got the big job. I made more money in 1994 than I did in 2004. I fell into a great job, somewhere in the middle of the ladder, without having to do the climbing. It was too much. I was often at work at 3:00 a.m., trying to keep all the balls in the air. I felt entirely responsible for the world and took myself pretty darn seriously. I bought a car, I walked around in $300 shoes and $500 suits, I often spent $300 on a meal out, my friends were artsy and connected and I had a need for sparkly dresses and gala-ready wear. Admittedly, I was conservatively shallow and self-interested, but this is often the plague of 25-year-olds. It was 4 years past Garry killing himself. He was my first love…and I had licked my wounds long enough. It was exactly the time to start looking around for a Mister when I got a 2 a.m. phone call from my mom saying that my brother, Craig, had been killed.
My focus did a dramatic 180 and for the next 7 years I was consumed with loss. My clients have commented about how I have a certain ease with talking about death, and I really feel that is because they didn’t know me through these first really tough losses. I can’t even read my journals from that time. I will flip through and graze a couple of passages and just say, “Oh Carla” and send much empathy to myself, in that time. It was ugly. It was an ugly, ugly, ugly time. I was irrevocably changed.
Life would have been so different for me now if Craig would have been alive today, as well as, his fiancé Amber, who was also killed with him. Craig had already started negotiations with dad about down payments on houses. It had to be a big one, because Craig was banking on getting at least 5 kids out of Amber. I would have been an Auntie. I would have been an amazing Auntie…I know this as a certainty.
He would have been there to help me look after mom and dad when they were failing. I would have been able to have a break. Mom and dad died comparatively young, neither of them making it to 70. My friends didn’t get it, they didn’t understand the stress. Mom died 15 years ago and dad 12 – but almost all of my friend’s parents are still alive today and not in need of much care. There was no one to talk to about this and it was here that the void Craig left swallowed me whole. I was alone with mom when she died in my arms. I was in the same stance 3 years later when dad drifted sweetly away with his head on my shoulder. That was it – my family was gone.
I was 38. But, honestly, I felt like I was 80 years old. Truly solo in the world now that my unconditional backup was gone…I was working without a net.
My dad was an eternal optimist. It was the hardest thing to watch him die because he wasn’t done yet. He loved life, he wanted more of it, but his body shut down and there was nothing he could do to stop it. I saw regret in those last moments and it has stuck with me forever. He sobbed on his way out, he knew he was leaving and it was a truly soul-crushing moment for the both of us. After seeing it, I thought, “I can’t do that…I can’t die with regret!”
The shallow girl of 25 had disappeared long ago. I went through a phase of reading every self-help book on the shelves. I can’t even stomach their Pollyanna, saccharine, cheering anymore. At 50 I have learned that life is not fair and the only way to deal with the hard stuff is to face it head on, feel all the feels, walk thigh deep in the bog, and keep your eye on the sunny horizon. No one was there to save me. At times that little light inside of me was shrinking to blue and I thought it would go out completely. But, my want to not die with regrets would throw oxygen on to it every time.
Not much in life freaks me out; but time does. I don’t like knowing that the clock is ticking. I want to be more aware of how I spend my time. I feel like I have never had a plan for my life, and so, have flitted from one pursuit to another. As my friend Myschka (who’s birthday is tomorrow) says, “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”
There have been gifts in this uncertainty. My experience is broad and diverse – having worked in everything from hospitals and universities to hotels and museums; consignment stores and high schools to farms and spas. A person can get around to a lot of things in 50 years. And now I am an esthetician. My parents never saw this transition and I’m not sure if they would have approved or not.
Birthdays in our house were very special. Mom said that it was the only day that was truly hers. When she got a new class of students she would let them know that November 5th was her birthday and she expected a party — and she wasn’t kidding. Mom and dad would have sent me flowers. Mom would have baked me a cake and spent half-an-hour in Anderson’s Drugs picking out the perfect birthday card. Dad would have pored over the jewelry cases at Wade’s Jewelry to pick out the perfect girly bauble. If I wasn’t in Drumheller, I would have come home from work, to hear mom and dad, over-enthusiastically, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ on my answering machine. Life is different without parents. Life is forever altered when the people who are proud of you are no longer there. It is forever altered when the people that never forget you are not here to remember you.
At 50, I am a little tired of being my own cheerleader. Sometimes I’m tired of having to do absolutely everything by myself, from simple things like taking out the garbage; to big things, like renos on my house. Other times I am so thankful that I don’t have the drama that goes with having someone live under my roof. People say that I have it made in the shade. Until you’ve been quarantined for over 2 months during a pandemic by yourself, only to be told that you can now ‘bubble’ with another household…but there’s no one for me to bubble with. The Bubblers are bubbling with their families. Meanwhile, I had Alexa sing Happy Birthday to me. It’s a reckoning, singledom.
I do have my people though and they came out in spades yesterday with truly unexpected and delightful surprises that left me grinning, blessed and humbled. I have people in my life who are so deeply etched in my heart that they are a part of who I am. Most of them are far, and that’s my fault. I’m the one that moves. I’ve moved 23 times. But I finally got so tired of moving that I decided to buy a Victorian house in Nova Scotia that I never want to leave. My home is my favourite place to be. It is filled with all my touchstones. At breakfast this morning, I ate at my parents dining room table, off of my mom’s china, using my Grandma Day’s silverware. To the left was my water glass that Trevor gave me, to the right the crystal juice glass that Ingrid gifted me for Christmas. Almost everything in my home did not come via purchase, it came via gifts and legacy. The people I love are around me, in many different forms.
I have never waited for an ‘other’ to join me in life. If I had, I would probably still be living in my parent’s house in Drumheller. I would have never travelled to 35 countries. Or lived in 2 countries, 4 provinces and a territory. I would probably have been nailed down to some point on the globe and hind-sight is not really giving me clues as to whether that would be good or bad. But, through all of my flitting, I have become my favourite person, and that, in itself, is an accomplishment. I constantly impress and entertain myself. I grow my mind, I am interested in everything, I can see beyond my own 4 walls, I always wonder what is around the next corner…and I still think the best is yet to come.
I remember giving mom and dad a fridge magnet that said, “Grow Old with Me, the Best is Yet to Come”. Mom sniffed at it and gave a shoulder shrug that communicated that she didn’t believe that for one second. She was our family pessimist. I am daily thankful that I never took on that trait. Good things are coming! I know that the world can turn on a dime – but most people think that is a bad thing. But there is just as much of a chance of a good thing coming down the road as a bad thing. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the good things.
I rat-holed through my photos trying to find a photo of mom when she was 50. She had just 18 more years on the planet in this photo. My 50 is not mom’s 50. I don’t feel old…I don’t think I particularly look old…and I still think I’m going to live to 100. I think mom aged so much because I was 15 at the time – and I was a horrible human at 15. I was pretty much done with living in the Powell family and was ready to move out. I remember distinctly being an asshole and thinking in my head, “oh my god, am I ever an asshole”, and continuing to be an asshole despite it. As god as my witness, I would never have 15 back again.
But, I do wish that I had done some things differently. I would have chosen a different educational path. Guidance counsellors of my day were only available to help you be one of the Big 5 – doctor, nurse, lawyer, teacher, accountant. But, who looks after the Queen’s jewels in Buckingham Palace? Who’s the guy that polishes the crowns and preserves the textiles? I want that job. Nobody told me that job existed back when I had to choose a major! I don’t know if esthetics is my last stop on the learning rainbow. But I am content – and that is a rare bird.
So, who am I now, in 2020? I’m a combination of all the trials and tribulations that brought me this far. I wouldn’t change them. As much as I would like to have Craig back on the planet, I can recognize that he taught me more by leaving than he ever would have by staying, and that’s a gift. A powerful, brotherly gift. I am hoping that the karmic powers of the universe are keeping score and have witnessed that I have checked a lot of hardship boxes in the first 50 years of my life so that the next 50 will be smooth sailing! I’m kind. I’m intelligent. I’m independent. I’m worldly…and I make a mean baklava.
I have to work on a few points-of-self moving forward. I find myself constantly disappointed with humanity. I miss ages 1 to 21, when I was too self-absorbed to pay attention to what anyone else was doing in the world. I have emerged at 50 as a humanitarian and global citizen, and I have difficulties understanding people’s insistence to draw lines in the sand. I have never felt very separate from the whole and I don’t find myself to be much different than a little Bedouin herding his goats in the Middle East. I get fighty about it! But I can’t change people…I can just follow my own religion of ‘be a good person and do no harm’ and hope that others are inspired. I gotta let it goooooo. Where the good people at? Let’s be friends.
I’ve also been hauling around loss like an albatross around my neck. In many ways it has defined me. How can it not? But there is a part of my 50-year-old self that knows that I’m closer to being the loss than not. I don’t want to think about it anymore. I keep journals and for over 20 years I have been hashing out my ‘feelings’. This is good and important work…but come on Carla…at some point there is nothing more to be gained by miring in the muck. Fifty year old Carla wants to move toward the sun.
Life is half over…more than half over…for me. I have things yet to do. Occasionally I, out of character, think ‘what is it all for anyway’? There’s no one behind me. What will my legacy be? I was reminded of one of my favourite movies “Out of Africa” where Karen Blixen says:
“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”
That’s all I can hope for. That somehow my presence has been felt, and will continue to be felt, as long as the fates are on my side. And that, when I go, I will continue on…
Happy Birthday to me…Carla Margaret Powell.