When I was worried about the idea of having another child after so many years, and just when I had expected to be sending my kids out into the world, instead of bringing new ones in and starting all over, a good friend who had been through the same thing told me "That baby is going to keep you young. She's gonna be your fountain of youth." At first, I thought it sounded like the kind of rationale for getting a dog. "You'll get more exercise, taking it out for walks and bending over to pick up poop. You'll be chasing it around the house and trying to get it back indoors all the time. You won't want to do any of these things, and you'll hate every second of it, but, hey, exercise, right?"
But he was more right than I could ever have thought. I just turned forty-three, and I feel younger and fitter than ever. A lot of that is lifestyle changes and positive thinking, but I know that even that is motivated by the disruption of what I thought was my destiny. I look at old pictures of myself, the few that my big kids have saved, that I haven't gotten rid of out of sheer disgust, and I cringe at my former self. Almost a hundred pounds fatter, slow and weak, settled. Forced singlehood, single parenting, remarriage, and immediate and unexpected fatherhood are the gauntlets that have shaped me into the man I've become today. I know so many guys my age that are starting to settle, and I can tell that this insane challenge is what is keeping me sharp and strong and smart.
Still, I can feel the age and decay creeping up on me sometimes. My joints are fine, but the plantar fasciitis comes and goes, and when it comes, it has me alternating between running like the wind and limping like the three legged labrador. I'm at peace with my hair going gray - have been since I realized that my dad's hairline was my destiny. There's even something liberating about just shaving it all off every couple of days, and not thinking about it. It's the hair in the ears that's bothering me, often popping up faster than I can control it, like playing a game of whack-a-mole with a pair of tweezers. I'm more active and physically fit than I've ever been in my life, and I'm always looking for new challenges. Next year's challenge is to do some kind of race every month, and I feel like it's going to be a tremendous effort, but also an opportunity to prove something to myself. However, I do wonder how long it's going to be before other people see that it's getting more difficult for me to straighten up after bending over for a few seconds.
And all of this is the product of these unexpected changes and challenges. There are days when I think I'm not up to it, that I'm getting to old to be at this stage of life, but my friend was right. There really is something about having that baby in your life, in your arms. Unfortunately, sometimes in your bed. There's a muscle memory that kicks in, just like on the basketball court or the gym. Your body remembers what to do, and your brain reverts back to when you were just a young man yourself with your first child. It inspires me to stay quick, both physically and mentally, because the commitment I've made is such an important one, and requires me to be in peak condition, just like any other race I decide to run. I think back to the guy I was fifteen years ago, how I planned to be done with kids about now. And these days my wife and I are even working on having another baby, which means that I'll be bringing another child into the world, at exactly the age when I had planned to be kicking them all out into the world, and enjoying an empty house and lots of leisure time.
Like I said, it's a disruption, and it challenges the very concept I had about getting older. It might mean that I have to work more than I thought I would at this age. It might mean that the novel(s) don't get finished on schedule, or that I'll have to sacrifice some time from something else to get them done. At least when I sit down to write these days, I really feel like I have something to say, stories to tell. It has definitely meant that I sometimes have to get creative about what it means to get exercise. I can get my HIIT on in the park with the toddlers, and they can run cones with me and play with the resistance bands when I'm resting. I'll have to get used to sleep deprivation again, just when I had gotten the insomnia more or less under control. But I know that I'm stronger, leaner, faster, smarter, saner, tougher, and all around better than I have ever been, and I am equal to any task. I might just need a couple of weeks of training to get ready.
Sometimes, I catch a view of myself in the mirror, and, for just a second, I don't recognize that guy looking back at me. But I think he's pretty cool.