The best and worst of birthdays

Susan used to love birthdays. All the excitement of anticipation: the pleasure of being spoiled. Her birthdays stopped being perfect when she was twenty. She once told a friend this, and they laughed and said God, I was about seven I think, so she knows nineteen happy birthdays isn’t bad, but still. Those nineteen set up an expectation she still can’t quite banish. She still feels disappointed every year.

It’s worse this year, and not just because turning forty means sliding into another decade. She was browsing on a statistical website at work yesterday when she found a table of life expectancies.

At first she was cheered to discover that your life expectancy increases a bit every birthday, every time you survive another year. Despite what you may think you don’t use up a whole year of expected life between one birthday and the next. She tried to explain it to Maggie over coffee: a girl’s life expectancy at birth is 79.6 years, she said, but some women are still alive at eighty, and those women still have an average of nine years left. The longer you live, the longer you’re expected to live. Even at a hundred women can expect to live two more years. That’s because they’re such tough old birds, Maggie said. And anyway, if you’ve got to wait until you’re a hundred to find out you might live to a hundred and two that doesn’t sound like such a great deal to me. Maggie didn’t really get it, Susan thought.

Anyway, that was the good news. The bad news is that forty is the last birthday when a woman has more years ahead than behind . Susan’s life expectancy today is 41.1 years, meaning she can expect to live to 81.1. Although by next birthday she’ll have gained another 0.3 years, bringing her total life expectancy to 81.4 years, by then she’ll only have 40.4 years left.

That means that one day in the next year, one ordinary day, will be statistically the middle of her life. One moment, flashing past while she’s driving to work or paralysed by choice in the supermarket, will be the tipping point between the first half of her life and the second.

The implications were too great for Susan to get her mind round at first. She was overwhelmed by images of reaching the top of the hill, the middle of the seesaw, the centre of the earth. She began to worry that she’d spend the whole year waiting for the crucial moment – perhaps the rest of her life counting off moments, counting down to the last one.

But this morning she feels better. She feels a sense of resolution. She’s decided what she’ll do: she’ll work out when the fateful day is, and plan the most spectacular celebration, like the best birthday ever. And then she’ll make damn sure the second half of her life is better than the first.

The best and worst of birthdays


Joined January 2008

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