At this very moment, there is a one in four chance that I have my period. That's because it comes like clockwork every 28 days. I have it for one week and then get three weeks "off," which makes mine pretty much the textbook version of a menstrual cycle. Except for one twist: I'm 54 years old. That means I'm four years past the "average" end point for menstruation. So far, I have had more than four decades of monthly periods (give or take some pregnancies and nursing stints) complete with the bloating before, cramps during, headache after and crankiness all the way through. And really, I've had enough.
Years ago, if you had told me I would be late to The Change, I would have celebrated. Back then, I thought menopause turned you into Dead Woman Walking -- neutered and wrinkled, with nothing ahead of you but illness and grief. But something wonderful has happened to midlife. It's been stretched. Many of us are living far longer lives than actuarial tables anticipated. Case in point: my 84-year-old mother. Okay, she keeps losing her car keys (who doesn't?) but her days are filled with bridge games and luncheons. She recently called me on her iPhone from Starbucks where she was using the free wifi to download Richard Ford's Canada, her reading group's next pick. Her 90-something friend Edith recently returned from a tour of Cambodia where she confirmed that Angkor Wat had indeed deserved its lofty spot on her bucket list. I applaud their grit and see a clear message in it: although I might die tomorrow (tampon in place) I might also find myself active and lucid for many years to come.
I have already embraced with optimism this next stage of my life. The mental to-do list I created in my early 20s (career, marriage, kids, financial stability) is now retired. Not every checkmarked item led to the uncomplicated happiness I anticipated it would back in the days I wore "dress for success" shoulder pads and listened to the Talking Heads on my Sony Walkman. But life has been mostly good. I have almost-launched children, a long resume, and the luxury of having nothing left to prove. And yet my damn period still arrives every month. It's as if I'm paying off a student loan for some master's degree in art history that seemed like a good idea at the time but has long since proven irrelevant to my life.
According to my doctor, the "youngest" age at which I am likely to achieve menopause is 56. That's because it usually takes a year of stop and start, hit and miss cycles before the very last one -- and menopause isn't officially designated until 12 months after that. She points out that late menopause has its benefits. The estrogen that still travels through my bloodstream may be lowering my odds of developing heart disease and keeping my "mature" skin smoother than it might otherwise be. But there are risks too. If the monthly flow continues for much longer it will bump up my chances of developing uterine cancer and other health hazards. And, of course, until I actually go through menopause I don't know how awful my version of it might be. Will I be rocked as my mother was with hot flashes and mood swings? Will my already shoddy memory plummet? Will my air conditioning bills skyrocket? I feel like I'm at the starting line, waiting with trepidation for the gun to go off. I want to get it over with and it hasn't really begun.
My current predicament is a weird echo of the one I faced much earlier in life when I was waiting endlessly for my first period to arrive. It finally appeared in 8th grade, when I was two days shy of 13, which made me, statistically, a late starter. (And, no, that doesn't explain my current situation. In fact, studies indicate that women who "achieve menarche" late are more likely to go through menopause earlier than others. Go figure!) Until that day, it felt like some bouncer had let all of my friends into the dance club while I stood balefully on the far side of the velvet rope. I remember when Karen Schattman announced she'd gotten her period. She was six months younger than I and "so immature." What a humiliation! I walked home from school that day, hiding my tears behind the pile of books cradled in my arms.
I'm not crying now. I'd say my current attitude toward my stubborn period is one of exasperated bemusement -- a stance I've had plenty of practice with ever since my kids hit adolescence. It is with resignation and acceptance that I trek every month to the drugstore to buy another box of tampons. Many years ago I shed any embarrassment about having that purchase rung up by the pimply 20-something guy behind the register. But now, awkwardness is creeping back in. What must he think as he scans each of my purchases -- the chewable calcium supplements, baby aspirin, fish oil -- and then encounters my box of "supers?" I always want to say, "Oh, those are just for my daughter."