getting my head together

This morning I got an email from a colleague that said “Happy International Very Good Looking and Damn Smart Woman’s Day” to which I thought “right on!”  The message went on to list a number of sayings and quotes about women and life in general – “inside every old woman is a young woman asking what the heck happened”, “the hardest years in life are between the ages of 10 and 70” and other similarly humorous phrases. It’s Friday, so I took the time to read through them.  They all made me smile, but then I read one that actually made me think:  “35 is when you finally get your head together and body starts falling apart.”   I massaged my neck as I stared at my computer screen and thought to myself, “too true”.

When I was 18, I fell in love hard.  It was on my very first day at college.  He was older and sexy and funny and charismatic, and cooler than anyone I had ever met before, next to my brothers.  For some reason he took a liking to me and put on the charm from the first moment I met him.  I distinctly remember my parents walking me into the admission office, and this very suave manlike boy turned around, and as his mouth slowly unzipped into a stunning smile, he said “you’re Kim Cullen?”   When we found out he was a resident advisor in my dorm, my dad spluttered something like “oh boy” (only, I think a bit stronger).  I instinctively sensed he was Dangerous, but I was already in – hook, line, and sinker.  We dated for a few weeks, until one morning, I walked over to his room, and as I raised my hand to knock on his door, I heard the sound of laughter… a woman’s laughter.  I was devastated.  I spent the next months avoiding him, crying in the bathroom, drinking too much at frat parties, eating a lot.  The rest of that first year was torture.  It wasn’t only about him – this was a precarious time in my life:  I was away from home for the first time.  I felt like an outsider among American kids since even though I was American by passport, I had grown up overseas.  I was struggling to redefine my relationship with my parents as I slowly began to exert my independence.  And to top it all off, I had had my heart ripped to shreds by a gorgeous older boy.  I returned home at the end of the year hoping to be able to piece myself back together.  I discovered aerobics, and found stability in physical strength.  It became addicting and I worked out daily, sometimes twice a day.  As the baby fat started to melt off, I realized that eating less would speed up the process.  By the end of the summer, I was eating less than 300 calories a day.  When I returned to school in the fall, people noticed.  I had never experienced such appreciation simply because of the way I looked.  Once, I was even approached in the dining hall by a senior who asked if I was modeling…  You can imagine the boost. 

Therapy helped me get back on track.  So did cigarettes and peanut butter.  I realized that eating was actually fun.  But with it came a swing back to being overweight, and a brand new cycle of feeling bad about myself.  For me, eating (or not) became my way of handling pain.  The deeper the pain, the more I damaged myself.  This continued for years, and riding the pendulum from healthy to unhealthy (both physically and emotionally) again and again left scars on my psyche – not to mention stretch marks on my body.   There have been many peaks and valleys in my emotional development, but when I was 32, I finally got mad.  The anger came out in all kinds of ways, and in the end, I found myself signing my divorce papers.  I remember talking to my brother on the phone the night before and asking him “what does one wear to a divorce?”  He told me to find something in my closet that made me feel confident but “hot”.  Oh, and definitely cowboy boots, he said.  And so it was that I walked into my lawyer’s office the next day wearing jeans, a tank top and a blazer, a sexy tiger-striped scarf, and cowboy boots.  I felt good.

It was during this time – at the height of my troubled adult life – that I met and started dating Dave.  Dave made me feel like a different kind of woman altogether.  For the first time in my life, I didn’t need to be thinner or fatter.  I didn’t need to worry about how I looked because he thought my MIND was sexy.  It didn’t matter if I had bed head, or bad breath or a pimple, or if I was bloated…  he loved ME and that was enough.   When I turned 35, he joked about how it was all downhill from there, and he’d soon be looking for a newer model.  The glimmer in his eye as he said it gave him away, though, and last fall, we got married in Las Vegas.

The irony is this:  I’m 37 now and yes, my body sometimes hurts.  My back aches when I stand for too long.  My neck tenses if I don’t take breaks from the computer.  My hips and knees get gimpy on rainy days.   My recovery time after a workout is longer than ever before.  And I can’t drink more than a glass and a half of wine anymore.  But when my husband smiles at me, I feel younger and sexier than I ever have.  When he tells me I am beautiful, I know it’s true.  And when I feel his eyes follow me as I walk by him, I know that this Kim, the 37 year old one with the body that sometimes aches, well… she finally got her head together.

on being a little sister

One of my greatest sources of pride growing up was being the little sister.  I was the baby, with two brothers – 3 ½ and 6 years older.  With that kind of age difference, I quickly learned to defend myself.  Family vacations were always spotted with the occasional battle in the backseat of the car.  They usually started because I would sit in the middle, and the boys would proceed to make Kim Sandwiches as we’d round each corner.  Sometimes our dad would play into it by taking the occasional corner particularly hard, just for giggles.  This would escalate into full-blown brawls where J would stick his finger in my ribs repeatedly and I would retaliate by biting, scratching and spitting.  Mike always managed to stay out of those fights, clever boy. 

Not only did I learn how to fight; I also learned how to play up the cute factor.  My brothers’ friends always had time for me.  When J’s friend, Greg, broke his arm, he came straight to our house from the hospital.  At 6, the biggest thrill of my life was to be the very first person to sign his cast.  I had a crush on Greg for years after that.  When I was in 4th grade, Mike’s friend, Alan, used to come up to me in the hallways at school just to “steal my nose”.   Being a little sister had its advantages, see, because I wasn’t just a little sister to J and Mike; I was everyone’s little sister.  I felt like the safest girl in school. 

I was also the luckiest girl in school.  My brothers were quick, cool, and so handsome.  And as we got older, everyone was always amazed to see how well we got along.  In middle school, I was the only girl whose older brother would actually stop her in the hallway for a hug.  My friends would snicker and whisper as Mike gave me a bear hug and lifted me off the ground, and I would grin from ear to ear, knowing that deep down inside, they were just jealous.  When I got my period at age 12, it wasn’t my mother who sat down and held my hand and talked me through it.  Instead, it was J who, after pacing the room, saying “I… I don’t really know what to do… I have never been here before”, escorted me to mom’s bathroom to find “the stuff” I needed.  We laughed about that one for years. When I was a little older, I chose to go to college in New York because Mike was a couple of hours away in Rochester.  And I later chose to do my graduate work at a small university in Watford, England over Columbia University’s Teachers College so that I’d be only an hour away from J. 

At some point, things began to change, as they do.  Mike and J got married, and so did I.  We had our jobs, spouses, and eventually babies, and life began to pull us in different directions.  With Mike having settled in the States, and J and I living in London and Madrid, respectively, getting together was increasingly difficult.   Our family reunions were limited to twice a year – once over the summer when we’d all pile into our parents’ home for a week in August, and then during Thanksgiving when J and family would come to Madrid.  Mike eventually pulled out of the family scene – as he got older, the relationship between him and our dad deteriorated to the point of no return.  We had no choice but to accept that.  In September 2007, tragedy struck.  J was diagnosed with a highly aggressive bladder cancer.  He had surgery in February of the next year – they removed his bladder and gave him what they called a neobladder – a reconstructed bladder made from a portion of his intestine.  While they were working on him, though, they found that the cancer had spread and was unstoppable.  In May, he was given 6 to 12 months to live.  He died only 4 months later, at the age of 42. 

At 37, I have spent the last year and a half trying to teach myself how to be an only child.  With J gone, and Mike out of the picture now for almost 5 years, I have had to figure out my place in the world.  I am learning, slowly, though, that I will never be an only child.  My life, my experiences, my interests, my beliefs, my memories…  so many of these are the result of my place in my family.  My love and admiration for my big brothers – whether they are here are not – will always be steadfast.  And no matter how old I get, I will always be what they made me:  a little sister.