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OPINION

On turning 60

I used to take my birthdays for granted. But now each year feels like a kind of battlefield victory.

"I am is who I am. And today I am a 60-year-old woman."Adobe/ink drop - stock.adobe.com

Not long before my 40th birthday, my hair started to go gray. I wasn’t above swearing at the little buggers but I never plucked them out. That seemed potentially painful and, ultimately, pointless.

A colleague, his own mane a riot of white, once asked if I planned to dye my hair. Knowing I would never spend the time and money on such upkeep, I told him no. With a smile, he said, “There’s something about looking in the mirror and knowing that who you are is who you are.”

Those words have since become a kind of personal affirmation — who I am is who I am. And today I am a 60-year-old woman.

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The first time I scribbled that last sentence on my iPad, “60″ strangely autocorrected to “40,″ as if even my favorite gadget was in denial. Then again, that was back when I felt like the Titanic bearing down on an iceberg. Before this birthday was in my sights, it loomed large in my mind.

Being 60 puts me directly between the ages when my father suffered a heart attack and when my mother had a stroke. Both survived — the ancestors would summon them to their rest much later. But 60 became the marker for when I imagined fears of my own mortality would cozy up to me for the rest of my earthly ride.

And now I’m here. My doctor says things like “You’re in good health for someone your age,” which never quite lands like the compliment he thinks it is.

But I also know this: In a culture obsessed with youth, admitting my age feels oddly like a confession. Even on social media, where people share more than they should, soliciting birthday wishes is one thing; revealing how many candles will adorn the cake is something else.

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This seems especially true for Women of a Certain Age. I don’t think we’re inherently coy about the passing years. Mostly, our reticence stems from navigating all those who are passing judgment. Men are allowed to age gracefully — or disgracefully — while women are lambasted for trying to look younger or for having the audacity to look their age. Professionally, a man in his 60s is still vital. A woman barely beyond 40 is often considered washed up.

The author on her 40th birthday.Skydive New England

For the recent sequel “Top Gun: Maverick,” Kelly McGillis was not asked to reprise her 1986 role as Tom Cruise’s girlfriend. In a 2019 Entertainment Tonight interview, she was candid about why she believed that decision was made: “I mean, I’m old and I’m fat, and I look age-appropriate for what my age is, and that is not what that whole scene is about.”

Cruise is 60. McGillis is 64. In the same interview, she said, “I’d much rather feel absolutely secure in my skin and who and what I am at my age as opposed to placing a value on all that other stuff.”

Here’s the stuff that matters: Live with honesty and humor. Surround yourself with people who call you out when necessary but never desert you, and the years are well spent. Yes, I have regrets — I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t — but dwelling on them does nothing but revive old heartaches. I’d rather focus on trying to do better.

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Of course, I envy those with more decades in front of them than behind them. COVID has made those feelings even more acute. More than two years of time stolen and the constant pitch of disruption, sickness, and death have at times left me feeling diminished and depressed. Yet I know that as difficult as it’s been, I’ve had it much easier than many.

But presented with such an opportunity, I wouldn’t trade youth for what my years have given me. I saw Willie Mays play for my beloved New York Mets at the end of his illustrious career. I witnessed Prince’s evolution for nearly four decades. I could anticipate the wonders of Toni Morrison’s next novel. I’ve watched the babies of loved ones become compassionate young adults ready for the world. All of it has shaped and sustained me.

Unlike the tandem skydive that gloriously marked my 40th year, this birthday will be quiet. I’ll spend it with the same friends who also helped celebrate my 30th, 40th, and 50th birthdays. That we’re all still in good health is greater than any gift. I know the coming years will not always be so generous.

“Do not deprive me of my age,” May Sarton once wrote. “I have earned it.” Yes, being 60 sounds weird to me, but I’m resisting the tediousness of complaining about getting older; I know too many people who never made it. Especially as a Black woman, every birthday feels like a battlefield victory.

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My hair is now all salt, no pepper. Gravity is disrespectful. My knees won’t shut up. But every day, I’ll continue to look in the mirror and know that who I am is who I am.

I am 60. And I have earned it.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.