I squint into the lighted mirror on my vanity, perched on the edge of my chair. The lines around my eyes have gotten more pronounced—there’s no denying it. When I look at photographs of myself, that’s where my attention is immediately drawn. Those crinkly lines by my eyes, the lines that infuriatingly look so endearing and even sexy on older men. Why do I hate them on myself? Maybe it would be different if the puffy area beneath my eyes didn’t seem so saggy. In fact, sagging seems to be one of my primary physical conditions all across the board. How did I not appreciate how firm my skin was when I crossed the threshold of thirty?
I look closer, smiling and frowning alternately, accessing those blasted wrinkles. And then a face pops into my mind. A quiet voice whispers a sobering reminder, and I instantly quiet the inane, now offensive, chatter inside my head. R would give anything to watch the lines on her face multiply into old age. I realize now that watching the creases on my face, the crinkles by my eyes, deepen, increase, perhaps even give way to a loose neck and drooping décolletage would be a blessing and a privilege.
My mom’s dear friend died this week. When I sat scrutinizing the marks of age on my face, she had just begun a rapid decline that we knew would inevitably accompany her terminal illness. My mom, R’s family, and those who knew and loved her, simply waited. After months of pain, illness, and suffering, she passed away at only 62 years old.
And as she declined, my mom was there. I have never been so moved by anything in all my life as my mother’s unwavering presence and support as she watched her friend slowly die. She didn’t look away. She stood by her, visited her multiple times a week, listened, shared wine, offered transportation, advocated for her needs. My mother’s selflessness, courage, and breathtaking witnessing humbled me to my core. How easy would it have been to look away, to offer self-imposed blindness as a talisman against facing your own mortality? How brave, loving, and loyal must you be to be such a powerful support as a loved one approaches death?
I am only 36. I don’t want to think of such things. I don’t want to think about the mortality of myself, my husband, my children, my parents. I want to pretend such possibilities don’t exist. Of course we can never live with the constant mindfulness of death, wondering how many breaths left are ours to take. The awareness would be an anchor we could never survive. And so we go on, continuing once again to take life for granted—how can we not?—to complain about the weather, our headache, our ruthless boss or our ridiculously busy schedule. We dare to criticize our appearance, to bemoan all evidence of aging on our faces and bodies. But maybe we make room, a small space, for the permanent residence of gratitude and perspective. Maybe we can let it whisper to us when we feel most overwhelmed, discouraged, when our cruelty turns inward.
I take a closer look at my face now. I try to welcome the changes that are happening to my body, the changes that I hope will continue to come. I want to live. I want to hold my grandchildren to a bosom that may have begun to sag further, to a chest that is creased with a map of beautiful, precious lines. I want to watch them get married. I want to live.
It doesn’t matter that grey hairs pop up. It doesn’t matter that we can’t afford to go to Disney World this year. It doesn’t matter that we had a bad night of sleep, or work was hard this week, or the kids are fighting. We are together. I repeat it as a mantra to combat moments of gracelessness and ingratitude. We are human, we’ll forget again. We will lose perspective. But right now, today, I remember how lucky I am to be alive, with my family around me. Fear and superstition creep up (please don’t let this jinx me, please don’t take anyone away from me, please, please) during moments when our awareness of death is heightened to an uncomfortable level.
Here’s to you, R.A. Your life was beautiful, though I wish it had been longer. Your smile lit up rooms, there was no mistaking your energy. You were a mother, a cherished friend, a force of nature, and a teacher in every sense of the word. Your life mattered.
And here’s to you, Mom. Your life matters, too. You too are a teacher in every sense of the word, a devoted mother and cherished friend, and a true warrior of compassion and loyalty. I am grateful to both of you for what you have taught me about friendship, love, and about what is truly important in life.