March 19, 2012
He lays sprawled out on the carpet with his arm tucked under his head to help our four year old find the capital “G” for his alphabet puzzle. His hair is mussed, the auburn color darkened with sweat, a consequence of his 3-mile run. He smells of the outside, like freshly mowed grass with hints of dill. At 6 feet 8 inches tall, he rarely affords me a glimpse of the top of his head, although from my usual vantage point a foot below, I can easily describe the scar hidden beneath his goatee. As I watch the two playing together on the carpet, grateful to be an observer for once rather than a participant, I am startled to notice that my husband of ten years – the love of my life – has a slightly receding hairline and that his thick red hair is now thinning a bit at the top. I never noticed from head-on but suddenly I’m able to examine the top of Chris’ head. His pink scalp peeks through vulnerably, almost indecently, and I feel as if I have caught him sobbing in the bathroom. I will love him no matter what and I’m not just saying that to make myself feel virtuous. I love his hair but I love him more.
I begin to tear up, and am frustrated by my own reaction. This is ridiculous. I can’t be this shallow. I met Chris in my twenties and still remember the moment I first saw him at a new professor orientation at James Madison University. He sat in the top row of the lecture hall wearing a French blue dress shirt. When he introduced himself to the group I commented on his good looks to a colleague sitting next to me. Noticing men was uncharacteristic for me in any context but particularly so on that day, because when I first saw Chris, I was still tan from a honeymoon with my high school boyfriend and husband of two weeks. Chris too was married when we met, but we struck up a fast friendship once we realized that we were both commuting from Washington, DC. We decided to drive together the following day and by the end of our two-hour drive to Harrisonburg, Virginia, we were in love. We were divorced then married within the year. More than a decade later, I still feel as grateful and excited to have met Chris as I did that first day.
But when had Chris begun to grow older? It isn’t as if I hadn’t noticed his hair graying at the temples for years or his well-peppered goatee but I always thought this made him look distinguished and more professorial. It isn’t so much a sign of aging as a costume designer adding gray hair and crinkles around the eyes to make a young actor look older for a scene. But thinning hair? That was different. I love Chris’ thick hair. It’s always been an outward sign of his vitality, his health, and his youth. But when I glance over to the wedding photos framed on the desk, I have to admit that Chris had aged.
I pull a photo album from the bookshelf and carry it into the living room, determined to pinpoint exactly when he began to change. Flipping past the innocent pictures of us holding our nine year old as a swaddled infant, we look tired but unmistakably young. The early years of our first born are painstakingly documented, with the passage of seasons evident in the pumpkin sack costume, the stiff-legged snowsuit shots and the photos of Drew’s first swim with his diaper pooching out the back of his Spiderman trunks. I search the album for pictures of Chris. His hair is as thick and red as ever throughout Drew’s toddler years and even into the snapshots of Elena as a baby. There she is in a sea of pink and purple photos. So gleeful about having a girl, I insisted on dressing her in fussy pink dresses even when they washed out her peach skin and clashed with her strawberry blond hair.
By Elena’s third birthday though, Chris’ hair had begun to fade to brown, as men’s red hair tends to do without the assistance of beauty parlors and henna. There aren’t as many photos of Elena as of Drew, and the few that made it into the album feature her in a high chair with a messy face – those rare moments when I allowed myself to grab the camera – assured that she was safely buckled up and away from her older brother. It goes without saying that by the time our third child Sean was born, I had neither the time nor the inclination to take photos.
People love seeing their own likeness captured on film and I’m no exception. Everyone flips impatiently past pictures of distant relatives and scenery shots which once seemed so breathtaking but later just seem dull. I can’t resist looking for myself in the album and I do have to admit that I’m not looking my best in most of the photographs. Although my body bounced back after Drew’s birth, my own hair had thinned and I look haggard and overwrought throughout much of his first year of life. After Elena was born, I did eventually return to my pre-baby weight but it took longer and seemed to have redistributed itself differently. My waist had thickened and the tired wrinkles and dark circles around my eyes didn’t respond as well to concealer as they had in the past. By the time I gave birth to Sean at age 36, I had already mourned the loss of my pre-baby body but didn’t attribute the sags and rolls so much to age as to the trauma of having multiple c-sections. Despite my own aging, it is more troubling for me to notice that Chris had also aged since those early years of raising young children. To acknowledge that he is getting older forces me to confront the possibility of someday losing him.
The other day when I was driving I looked down at my hands on the steering wheel and noticed that they looked exactly like my mother’s with tapered fingers and nails characterized by shorter thumb-nails that refused to grow, veins that stood out in sharp relief and wrinkled knuckles. My mother died ten years ago at the age of fifty-seven and it pains me that I can only picture her in bits and pieces, her square feet crossed at the ankle and tanned even in the winter because she insisted on wearing sandals instead of “confining” herself to closed-toe shoes, the crease between her eyes that deepened as cancer spread, and the peach fuzz on her cheeks that was comforting to me as a child but probably troubling to her as a woman.
Seeing my own hands is like seeing hers again. She was a masterful knitter and the click of her needles was a steady refrain in my childhood as she knit her way through multiple sweaters at a time, sometimes finishing one sweater per week. An avid mystery reader, she vowed that infidelity would be punished with a knitting needle strategically inserted into the neck of the sleeping offender. Her violent threat was funny in the context of my parents’ loving and companionable marriage. After her death, my sister and I kept all five hundred and thirty-two sweaters, unable to part with even the puffy-sleeved, powder-blue sweaters of the Eighties. After ten years, I am only now able to think about my mother without bursting into tears.
My mom died three months before I married Chris. The worst thing about losing my mother just as I became an adult myself (and there were many horrible things) was that I never had the opportunity to express how much I truly appreciated her. Children are so self-centered and it is a unique child who is able to empathize with a mother’s perspective before walking in her shoes. It wasn’t that I never had told my mother how much she meant to me or how much I loved her, but rather that at the time of her death, I simply had not had the life experience to understand her world. I missed out on knowing her as a peer, as a confidante, and as a friend. She passed away just as I was on the cusp of adulthood. Granted, at age thirty, I had chronologically been an adult for years, but I had been an unmarried, childless student for much of my twenties and it was only once she got sick that I began to make the critical life decisions that leveled the playing field between child and parent.
Now, as a mother myself, how is it that I have yet to learn to treasure the mundane everydayness of life, knowing that it can be irrevocably altered in an instant? I find it so difficult not to wish away the tedious days of packing lunches, refereeing fights, and nagging about piano practice, but I know with the utmost clarity that I will long for these days before long. It’s a tragic irony that we only have time and patience to treasure our children’s neediness once they have moved beyond us. When my youngest was an infant and I finally realized how fleeting the infant stage really was (six weeks at most?), I remember sitting with him in a rocking chair in the early hours before the chaos began afresh and feeling a stark bittersweet nostalgia for that very moment. Only in these most rare instances could I simultaneously experience the present while maintaining the foresight to mourn its loss.
Flipping through that photo album, I realize that at age forty-two, I am able for the first time to see versions of my adult self – only younger. In my twenties and early thirties, when I looked at photographs from past years, the physical changes I witnessed were expected and easily explained as evidence of earlier life stages: child, teenager, college student. Once I hit my forties though, it became increasingly difficult to see the changes. Yes, I looked younger but imperceptibly so. Perhaps it was because my hairstyle and clothing unfortunately had not kept pace with fashion trends as readily as in the years before having children. For most of us, by the time we reach our forties, the exciting and often impulsive decisions of spouse, career, and children have been made, and it becomes increasingly difficult to undo these choices. A large part of avoiding the mid-life crisis may be in admitting that adulthood as a life stage is longer than any other, and is characterized far more by staying the course than altering the course.
My mother’s life though was cut short. I never got to see her as a gray-haired, wizened old woman, although chemotherapy did mimic and accelerate the aging process. At the end of her illness, my mother’s skin was waxy and drawn and she had lost all of her hair. Like shoes, she found wigs to be too hot and tight, so she wore a soft cotton cap to cover her baldness. To see her without the cap was like looking beneath her skin, seeing some deeply private piece of her that was supposed to be kept hidden. It is frightening to envision myself as an old woman but it is even more terrifying to imagine the alternative.
Seeing my children grow is both unsettling and exhilarating. One day, they will launch and while I am certain that time will be tinged with sadness, I look forward to knowing them as adults and seeing who it is they will become. Watching my husband grow older is much more difficult. I adore the man he is and resist the inevitable changes to come. I have experienced the unimaginable hollowness of loss and understand that I am now emotionally stunted. I cannot stop myself from counting back the years remaining, fifty-seven minus forty-two is fifteen. But as much as I worry about my own bleak health prospects, I do not fear my own mortality nearly as much as I fear losing my loved ones. When my precious mother passed, I had the unfortunate luxury of knowing that it was possible to live through unspeakable pain, but at what cost? I don’t think I have the resilience to endure it again.
Of course, much of my anxiety around the eventual loss of my husband is misplaced. My father has just been diagnosed with intestinal cancer, almost ten years to the day after my mother’s death. On a recent visit to see him, he looked remarkably healthy and spry for a man in the midst of chemotherapy. Truly the most optimistic man I have ever met, my father was able to survive the death of his beloved wife of thirty-four years, and has since remarried for the remaining chapters of his life, as he puts it. As we leaned back against the white sofa and talked idly about the grandchildren, it was almost possible to forget for a moment. But when he sat up, the back of the sofa was covered with his black hair. He had just started a new chemotherapy agent and while the side effects were not as toxic as those my mother suffered, hair loss could not be eluded.
If only I could will myself to view the physical signs of aging as reliable indicators that premature death has been outwitted. Gray hair, wrinkled skin, and slack bellies would all serve as proof positive that life was progressing as it should. Hair loss could be seen as good if caused by the natural aging process and not the toxicity of cancer treatments. It seems morbidly irrelevant to rank loss on a score sheet from the most difficult to endure to the least but perhaps losing a parent as an adult is not as tragic as losing a parent as a child. I do not need my father in my life; I just want him in my life. I feel selfish when I put it in those terms, but I am not ready to lose him. I want my children to witness the insatiable curiosity that led him to sign up for a Ph.D. program months after retiring as a physician, to experience the generosity that prevents my sister and me from ever commenting on how delicious his meal looks lest he give it to us, and to know the remarkable kindness and gentleness that enables him never to lose patience with the endless task of raising his two “girls”. My dad is the only one left who has known me my entire life. My younger sister at least has me, but when I lose my father, I will be untethered. I will not be alone, but I will be on my own.
Is it more difficult to live through the fear and uncertainty of cancer for the first time or is it harder to endure once you can intimately map out the trajectory of pain and parting? Someone once told me that you never really become an adult until you lose a parent. You are always a child when you have a parent to rely upon. What about when you lose two parents? I imagine I will be doubly adult.
On the eve of my first wedding, I confided to my parents that I was having misgivings about my upcoming marriage. My father refused to dismiss my concerns as cold feet and looked at me carefully before asking me one deceptively simple question. Did my husband-to-be make me feel better when I was unhappy? I thought for a moment before admitting that no, he did not and that despite his best intentions, he often made me feel worse. My dad grew very still, took both of my hands and told me that I could call off the wedding if I wanted to, and I knew that he meant it. I regrettably went through with the wedding but I am often reminded of his easy distillation of a happy marriage.
When Chris finds me paging through the photo album, he leans over my shoulder to see which image has captured my attention. In the frame, we are celebrating Sean’s first birthday. Drew and Elena crowd around the high chair, eager to “help” blow out the candles and Sean grins gummily at the camera. “They were just babies. How is it possible that they get older when I stay so young and good-looking?” Chris jokes as he wraps his long arms around me and brushes my cheek with his whiskers. By surmising my fears, he chips away at them. I relax back against his solid chest, breathing in his grassy smell, and I feel better.
Laura Spielvogel is a professor of cultural anthropology at Western Michigan University and has published an ethnography on fitness clubs in Tokyo. She is now exploring the intersections of anthropology and fiction through her writing, and has created a web-based, role-playing simulation to allow students to “walk in the shoes” of characters in a fictionalized wedding between a Japanese bride and Italian-American groom. “Hair Loss” is her first publication in a literary journal.