Fifty Shades of Grateful–Reflections on My 50th Birthday

Kathryn Pincus February 2, 2016
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On January 29, 2016, I woke up at 3 AM and these thoughts immediately flooded my brain. “My gosh, I am 50 years old. Where did 50 years go?” I have to admit it was unnerving–feeling as if fifty years of my life seemed like a blur. Since I couldn’t sleep, I decided to focus and recall some meaningful, vivid, or for some reason, just “inexplicably memorable” memories from every stage of my life.  Maybe that would help bring all of that time back in a way–or at least remind me that I had in fact lived it. 

I remembered my childhood in my small hometown of Allendale, New Jersey. Eight of us in a Colonial house that Dad kept adding rooms to, and even a pool in the backyard. Mom had a little vegetable garden. And beyond the pool, there were woods and a brook (Valentine Brook) that we waded in, caught fish in, skated on and crossed by climbing over a fallen tree to get to Bruno’s Meat Market across the brook and in the adjacent town (Mahwah) so we could buy candy. I remembered sitting around a wooden dinner table every night with Mom at one end and Dad at the other, and with three of us kids seated on a wooden bench on both sides. Our black lab Shannon would be under the table hoping to catch some scraps while we ate and buzzed about our day. I remember so many wonderful things about living in that house with my three brothers, two sisters and my parents–routine things like watching M*A*S*H episodes and Yankee games together and playing pick-up softball games with the neighbors in front of our house. I remembered the safety and freedom I felt running around my neighborhood with the other kids that lived near me–some I keep in touch with to this day.

I remembered my K through 3rd grade days at Hillside Elementary School–learning first how to separate from my mother, and how to sit still and wait to speak….and then realizing I loved books and learning. I could still see us screaming in joy as we ran outside for recess where we’d play dodgeball, climb on the monkey bars and have footraces. I remembered Brookside Elementary School, where I began to like boys, play sports and look in the mirror and wonder who I would become (after the braces and the acne were gone).

I remembered my first day at Northern Highlands Regional High School, which was gigantic, and scary, and exciting as we added a whole new town of students and many more opportunities to make friends. I vividly recalled watching the Saturday morning football games-with the Highlands marching band playing “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles at half time. I recalled carpooling or taking the train into New York with my friends to go clubbing at places like Studio 54 and to see concerts by the Grateful Dead, the Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, and many, many more. High school brought my first (and then second) trip to Europe to explore France, and then Switzerland. I remembered being awestruck as I experienced the antiquity and history in the “Old World” for the first time, and the sense of freedom I felt as I explored these ancient places and met young people from other countries (like “Nasko” the handsome dark soccer player from Dbrovnik I spent time with in Interlaken). High School brought teachers who influenced me, showed me “I could” and encouraged me to take risks, question, believe and explore. I remembered mistakes I made and lessons I learned–including drinking too much at a party never ends well, piercing your own ear with a long needle and an ice cube is painful, and you must find a balance of caution and aggression when driving in New York City. I realized that high school taught me how to be a friend, have a friend, accept and cherish all sorts of people…….and it gave me crushes and disappointments, and well as my first experience with authentic romantic love.

I recalled how college at the University of Delaware was a fresh page. There were thousands of new people I could meet and countless choices regarding what I wanted to study and who I wanted to become. I remembered the bustle of students along the sidewalk on “the Mall,” with its sweeping green lawn lined with beautiful old buildings that housed lecture halls, classrooms and dorms. I lived with nine friends in a house for two years and six friends in a house my senior year–and they all became my friends for life. We’d gather in the kitchen cooking our dinners at night, or walk to the Down Under night club or the Stone Balloon bar for “mug night” with our mugs in hand and an air of excitement about who we might meet or dance with. I remembered when the “Wilbur Fest” outdoor music festival happened on our block, and the Grateful Dead-inspired band Montana Wildaxe played on our back porch and throngs of people enjoyed a mini Woodstock in our back yard. I recalled twisting my ankle on that same back yard while playing volleyball and drinking too much beer the day before our graduation–and limping through our commencement ceremony at the UD Football Stadium the next day.

I remembered, in stark contrast to college, feeling very much alone and a bit lost in a new city as I walked up the steps of Georgetown University Law Center on my first day. I knew no one–and my only roommate was a person I found in a newspaper ad. I remember wondering “Can I do this?” Before long, my anxiety about law school and about navigating Washington D.C. melted away, and was replaced by a true love of the law, by the energy I felt as I walked by the dome of the Capitol or the steps of the Supreme Court and the feeling that “I can do this” growing inside of me. I fell head-over-heels in love with the city, with the sense of majesty and power around the National Mall, the beauty of the Potomac River and the reflecting pond, the shops and bars bustling with people day and night in Georgetown and Adam’s Morgan. I ran every day past the U.S. Supreme Court, Capitol Hill neighborhoods and its Eastern Market, the “Awakening” statue of a giant man coming out of the ground in Haines Point, the houseboats in the harbor in SouthWest, or along the Canal in Georgetown. I sat with my classmates at the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the wee hours of the morning–after partying all night because we had survived our first semester of law school. I remembered gazing at those lights twinkling in the reflecting pond and, beyond it, the Washington Monument reaching up to the sky, and at that moment I felt limitless possibility.

I remembered starting my law practice and my life as a young single professional in 1991. My first “home” where I lived alone. Long hours studying for the bar exam and then becoming a member of the Delaware and D.C. Bars. I felt as if I had been through the fire that summer–but I did it with my new friends who were studying and stressing out along side of me. Many of them are my friends still today. I remembered my first time in a court room– nervous as hell and excited at the same time. I vividly recalled being breathless when–during a deposition in a law office at the top of a World Trade Center tower, I got too close to the window and looked down. Mostly, I remembered countless nights where I sat alone in my small office, fighting sleep deprivation while struggling to complete a brief….. and reassured by the sounds of my coworker and friend in the office next to me doing the same. It was nerve-wracking and grueling, but it was exhilarating at the same time. With maturity and experience, I became a better lawyer and a happier and healthier one–by becoming more efficient, more confident and by ultimately finding a better work/life balance.

I remembered meeting the man who seemed to be the most unlikely of matches for me, and yet deciding on our first date that he was in fact “the one.” I remembered instantly and without waiver loving the way his eyes smile when he smiles, the way he makes people laugh, his incredible work ethic and his matching “play ethic.” I loved the way he shared my sense of adventure and he also believed you can do anything you set your mind to and are willing to work for. I loved his passion for all things important to him, his fidelity, and most of all, I loved the way he loved his young son and daughter above all else. I remember knowing, “this is it, this is what it is supposed to feel like.” I vividly recalled our adventures: roller-blading along Philadelphia’s Kelly Drive, helicopter skiing in waist deep powder in the British Columbia Rockies, zip-lining 300 feet above Echo Canyon in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, and driving the wrong way on a one-way street in Milan. Most of all, I remembered how nice it was to have someone to curl up with on the couch to watch t.v. or read the New York Times on a Sunday, to share a quiet meal with and to hear breathing beside me in the dark of night.

I could see–etched in my mind like photographs–our big life events: our wedding in front of family and friends on a hot humid September day in the garden of a small Inn, with our parents, siblings, children and friends sharing the importance of the moment and the joy with us. I recalled rushing to the hospital to give birth to my son Joshua, making me a mother only 12 hours before my 32nd birthday.  I could see every single detail of that moment, Baby Josh’s little pink hands reaching out to touch my chin, his eyes scrunched together sleepily and then opening wide and blue. Less than two years later, my second son Eric decided he was in a hurry to enter the world on Christmas night-when there were no doctors at the hospital available to give me an epidural or any pain relief. I recalled the terror I felt when the pain became unbearable and I knew there was nothing I could do but get through it, or the fear I felt when I saw doctors finally rushing in by the score after labor had gone too long and my baby was in terrible distress. Eric tested my limits and he kept fighting, entering the world with a broken collarbone, a swollen and misshapen head, and umbilical cord “rope burns” around his face.

I recalled an endless stream of moments–“mundane” at the time perhaps, but many of the most special moments in my life: curled up on the couch with a toddler at my side, and a sweaty headed baby sleeping on my chest, pushing a double stroller to playgrounds, festivals, on beaches and in 5k races.  I recalled watching them grow and mature, middle school field trips and school plays, high school sports, academic struggles and achievements, and long drives in the car to lacrosse and wrestling tournaments–and later to visit colleges.  I hold countless pleasant memories of the day-to-day activities of our household when all four of our children lived under one roof: teenagers and babies, eating family dinners, teaching some to drive while others were learning to walk. I recalled (and still have the pleasure of) amazing family vacations, with all our kids in one place, biking on the walls of Lucca in Tuscany, swimming with sea turtles in St. John or laughing on the the beach at the Jersey Shore.

I recalled getting a whole new community as my children grew. Each school they attended, every athletic team they competed on, and every neighborhood we lived in brought new friends. I recalled pro bono legal work for abused and neglected children, chairing fundraisers to build new school buildings and to help low-income children access better education, cooking and serving breakfast to homeless people who live only miles from my house and I recalled always being grateful for my blessings in life, for the people I met and for the smallest difference I could make in someone else’s life. I remembered deciding I wanted to publish that story that had been forming in my head for six years, and every step of the difficult and incredibly rewarding experience of becoming an author. 

So, it is now 4 AM and I’ve thought about all of these things I’ve done in my life, and the experiences I’ve had, and I realize I know the answer to the question that started all of this reflection—–I know “where those 50 years went.” They went to living life, living it deeply and fully and to the best of my ability. But more importantly, in every moment, every memory, every experience–it is the people by my side who made it better, made it fun, helped me through, made me laugh, shared the experience, showed me the way or let me show them the way, held me up or let me hold them up. So when I reached this conclusion–that it is Friends that made my 50 years so wonderful and so meaningful, I decided to post this on my blog.  If you are similarly wondering where those years have gone–take it step by step, remember the places, the experiences and most of all the people….it will make you grateful and hopeful at the same time.