I learned to ride a bicycle in 5th grade. I started college at 26. But at 42, I finally experienced something early.
By Adriana Lecuona | But for one notable exception, I have a long history of belated achievements. I was born late in the lives of Cuban immigrants exhausted by the Revolution’s upheaval. Despite being Roman Catholic, I was baptized at five years of age. I learned to ride a bicycle in 5th grade, the same year I tried pizza for the first time. I became a full-time college student at Penn when I was 26, the same year I graced my teeth with braces. Swimming lessons? I was 30 when I donned my first flotation device. I married at 35 and gave birth at 39. I’m a latecomer, see.
It hasn’t been easy.
My parents were bewildered by their new country, their new language, things like college expectations for girls. Most of all, they were bewildered by me, a daughter who didn’t want to be sheltered, silent, or second-class.
At the baptismal font, the older girls (sisters of the babies about to be baptized) smiled behind cupped hands as the priest heaved me up for my ceremonial sprinkling, my underwear exposed beneath a dress decidedly shorter than any standard-issue newborn christening gown.
When it came to two-wheeled transportation, it required a certain suspension of pride to trail behind my middle-school peers, their handlebar ribbons streaming, as I padded behind, Flintstone-style, on my banana-seat bicycle.
To be a full-time college freshman at 26 proved an education in itself. The classmates seated around me were perpetually underdressed, their legs seemingly bare in all seasons—be they clean-shaven beneath tiny fluttery skirts, or hairy under the frayed cuffs of cargo shorts. Their eyes and voices cycled from straight-backed eagerness to slinking boredom at velocities I couldn’t fathom. They were as foreign to me as 14-year-olds. Yet, as I couldn’t remember a single math principle past rudimentary algebra, I had to lean on some of these unlikely colleagues for help.
While wearing braces, no less.
Braces during the prime years of adulthood, even the clear kind, are a lonely exercise in fortitude. I never did find out what kissing with braces felt like.
Getting married at 35 was fine by me, but pregnancy brought its own ruthless reminders about the perils of blooming late. Every conceivable test and supplementary monitoring was prescribed under the aegis of my obstetrician’s seemingly favorite term: my “advanced maternal age.”
At 42, for the first time, I experienced something early: cancer.
The slow speed of my life was suddenly interrupted by Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Sitting in the chemotherapy station, there I was, one of the youngest present. I did feel isolated, somehow singled out, but I knew that youth had its advantages. I was physically strong and otherwise healthy. Now, facing cancer was decidedly not easy. But in the five years since my diagnosis, I’ve come to believe that my experience with cancer has been one of the best things that could have happened to me. I recognize that it is a mark of my tremendous good fortune that I am able to regard cancer as a transformative experience. But it has been. I got to live and I got to change my life. Slowly.
To cope with cancer, I resumed an old practice of writing in a journal. What began as a sporadic activity—often undertaken when I felt particularly stressed—became, over the months of treatment, a daily practice. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. I would wake up at 5:30 a.m., while it was still dark, to get the coffee brewing. Steaming mug at my side and a quiet house at my disposal, I’d write. No matter what.
After treatment I joined a writer’s workshop in Philadelphia. Two years later I left what I realized was a dead-end job to embark on a writing career. I had finally learned—not in high school or college, but jobless in my 40s—what I wanted to be when I grew up. I might not have discovered it if not for the cancer diagnosis.
I’m learning to accept the measured pace of my life, to trust in myself no matter the direction it takes me. Those belated achievements of my early life—previously sources of doubt and despair—now serve as the font of my writing material.
Thank goodness I went to college as an adult, for I am certain that my younger self would not have savored every last second of my classes (okay, maybe math would have been a wash) nor would I have graduated magna cum laude.
So what if I was in my 20s when I had braces? I no longer cover my mouth when I laugh. As for the lost dates? Well, I’m glad no one was around to distract me from meeting the man who became my husband just a couple of years later.
In becoming a wife and mother later in life, I proved a more grounded partner for it and a far more patient parent than I could have ever been as a younger woman. Although I wish my bank account reflected a successful writing career of longer standing, I know that at any earlier point in my life I would not have been able to write with the same energy and focus. Moreover, I needed my whole life to develop the material from which to write.
I won’t lie. It’s still not easy. Most of my friends and family members have nicer cars than I do. They have 401(k)s and 403(b)s—whatever those are—and vacations they fly to. Sigh. But many of them complain about being old. They face their birthday candles with chagrin and recite the expected clichés. Most of all, they marvel at younger generations, as if their own lives are on the way to over.
Not mine. My accomplishments are not in the past. They’re my present and future. When I was diagnosed with cancer I thought my life was through. Instead, 47 years in, it’s only just begun. I’m full of wonder and hope. While my friends wonder about retirement, my life has spun into a thrilling new direction.
Slow down? Not this latecomer. I just applied to graduate school.
Adriana Lecuona C’95 lives with her husband and son in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.