waiting for 33


I turn 33 tomorrow. It sounds so old when I put it like that--33--not as breezy as 30 or 31, or even 32.

It reminds me of one of the opening scenes from Waiting to Exhale when Savannah, played by Whitney Houston, says to her meddling mother: "I am sick of you telling me how to live, who you think I should love and marry! I'm 33 years old and I live alone and I may have to accept the fact that I may live alone for the rest of my life!"

I remember watching the film when I was just a teenager, back when 33 sounded like a pitstop between adolescence and death. I couldn't imagine life in my thirties, could not see myself as a grown woman in Savannah's shoulder-padded power suit, talking on a phone in my own office, working as a producer at some obscure television network. (I wanted to become a doctor then, would not have imagined myself as a writer or filmmaker.)

Aging was a black hole into which I would reluctantly disappear, too murky to envision myself as a middle-aged woman married with kids, although there was a vague image of myself as a Maya Angelou-type grandmother serving up home-cooked soup and advice to anyone who passed by. It irked me that I couldn't imagine the intermittent years, between youth and old age, when I was no longer young and foolish, but not quite wise and established--a time for growing up and learning difficult life lessons.

Losing my mother at 20 was hard--thrust into premature adulthood, coping with end of life issues decades before most of my peers. And losing her within days of my birthday and hers (we were born two days apart) has made each birthday since feel like a wound reopened and examined. Am I who she would want me to be? Am I who I would like to be? Am I happy? Is this the life I want for myself? 

The only blessing in losing her has been an opportunity to ask myself these questions at least once a year.

It has meant not making certain choices, like marriage, to people I only passably liked, to give myself an opportunity to live my best life. I have not acquiesced to the societal and cultural traditions that so confined my mother. As much as she loved being mine, I am aware that she left many other dreams unfulfilled, which is why I have consciously tried to pursue my own. I likely come across as one of those outspoken, passionate, willful women who cannot be caged. I do not believe in patriarchy or authority, am not in the least bit male-identified.

And deep down, I'm not so unlike my mother after all. Despite having raised a family, her greatest fear was that she would die alone. But in the end, my sisters and I stood around her bed holding hands, watching her take the last breath. Her eyes passed over us, taking in our faces, and with a great exhale she was gone.

It was one of the most formative experiences of my life, one it has taken many years to fully understand. And as I get older, I am starting to outgrow the old knee jerk reaction I had to marriage and motherhood, accompanied with a visceral reaction similar to retching. I can see what a blessing it is to mother, to plant seeds that blossom long after you leave the earth. I can see myself wanting a family and life partner, even entering an institution, like marriage, that has always seemed so antiquated to me.

And having watched Waiting to Exhale several times in the nearly twenty years since its release, tomorrow will be the first time I can also say: I am 33 years old and I live alone.

I was forced into it when my sister moved away earlier this year, after which I sat on the couch and cried, realizing I did not like being alone. Having grown up with a big family and plenty of friends, I am quite good at camouflaging it. But independence is something I have had to fully experience in order to make a real choice about it.

I think that every woman should be able to stand on her two feet, pay her own bills, buy herself flowers if she wants to. As my mother always said, you cannot expect a man (if you're so sexually inclined) to do anything. I go home to Nigeria and see the ways in which more limited economic, political and social opportunities for women translate into a kind of childlike dependency on men that cannot be good for personal or societal development. I am grateful for having escaped that insidious trap.

But I also think companionship is important, making a genuine connection with another human being. I understand that the kinds of life lessons learned through compromise and communication cannot be learned on your own. It is a balancing act. I am aware that I'm entering another phase of my life simply because this is not something I understood ten years ago.

I am grateful for reaching 33 in good health. Onward. --AL.

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