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.
Very powerful and absolutely true observations, Steph, very eloquently said. I didn’t know R, but I’ve valued the characteristics you talk about in your Mom for decades. I always will.
Thanks, Nancy. I know she feels the same way about you. So do I. 🙂
I always feel like you take the thoughts right out of my head and make sense of them. Beautiful. I especially enjoyed the part about your mother being there for her friend. What a difficult thing to do and I’m sure meant the world to R.
Thanks so much, Susan. That was a beautiful compliment– I appreciate it. Yes, it was hard on her and it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.
This makes me think of other women of my mother’s generation that died too soon, too young. It is heartbreaking.
Oh, I’m so sorry for your and your mother’s loss of her dear friend. It is so hard to watch a loved one struggle, but there is nothing more loving you can do for a friend than to be there for them, truly be there, when they are near the end. Not everyone can do that.
And as for the wrinkles, the aging, ah… I am there with you, well, a few years ahead 🙂 For me, I avoid mirrors. I try not to study or scrutinize. It’s depressing when I let myself wallow, but like you write here, it’s not worth wasting time moaning about those lines when you can be living them. However, what makes it harder to keep your chin up (literally, ha) is how society views aging women versus aging men. While men are distinguished with gray hair and wrinkles, us women try our hardest to cover them up – and we’re encouraged to do so.
I could go on and on, but no need, since you did it much better in your words above!
You and me both, sister. That topic– the difference in how society views aging men and aging women– really fires me up. And thanks for your lovely comment. I agree- not everyone can do that.
This is really the harsh reality–isn’t it? We can fight every thing about aging or accept that the other choice is unbearable–to NOT live. What a powerful, important post. I’m sorry for this loss of your mom’s close friend. My parents best friends are like family to me, too.
Thanks so much, Nina. And yes, it IS a harsh reality. I’m trying to be more mindful of the blessing that is aging when I’m compelled to criticize myself.
What a lovely tribute to your mom, her friend, aging, and friendship! And what beautiful writing.! Your mom told us about this tribute at book club today. We also listened to the song you sang at your aunt’s service. More beauty and awareness of what really is important in life and death. I loved the photo of all of you. You were born to wear short hair. Love and hugs from Joan Conner
Thank you so much for all of that, Joan! I know it meant a lot to her to have your support yesterday. It’s been a hard week. Hugs back!
Your mother is one in a million, and one of the best, most fun, most supportive friends I have ever had in my wanderings around the USA. Your gift of writing touched a million places in the heart and mind and you, too, are fun and funny. I am proud of you, just cause I am!
Thanks, Joan. That means the world to me. I really appreciate that… and I couldn’t agree more about my mom!
Oh Stephanie. I am so sorry. I’ve read so much about grief this week, and I feel that jinxy feeling, too. And you’re right, here and now together. That is all that matters.
Thanks, Allie. The jinxy feeling makes me feel so weird… like I had to admit it out loud or I was doomed. Ugh. I hate being superstitious like that.
Such a beautiful post and tribute. Our across the street neighbor recently passed away and it was sudden and also way too soon. She was 67 and offered herself as a surrogate mom to me when she had heard my son was ill. She knew my own mom had passed away two months before my son’s diagnosis and she wanted to be there for us. It was something I will never forget. You are so fortunate to have known R and to have your mom be such an amazing role model. I am truly sorry for your loss…
Oh, Emily, that makes my heart hurt. I’m so sorry for your loss.
So sorry to hear about your loss, Stephanie. And yes, we’ll eventually forget and complain about first-world problems; we’re human and we tend to magnify the hassles of the moment. But sometimes things like this happen, and they remind us that all the stuff that seem so big are really petty. The tantrums, the inconvenient cold, the internet going down—these are all so small.
I’ve actually been trying to be more aware of our impermanence in this world. It’s insane to think about it, but humbling. To think that humans will eventually end, that our sun will disappear in billions of years, that life as we know it will be gone. It’s scary, sad, but ultimately… freeing, because you’re then not tethered to anything material.
That was such a gorgeous, insightful comment, Nina. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts– I could not agree more.
Sorry to read of the loss of your mother’s dear friend – though you write beautifully about it, with the juxtaposition of the deep aspects of life and of our shallower thoughts.
That contradiction goes on existing, even in the depth of grief. My father died in the summer of 2013, and my mother (aged 82 at the time) worried about what she’d wear to the funeral. I had packed in such a hurry that I had no options, or I would probably have done the same. Perhaps it’s the mind’s way of keeping us from thinking too much about what we are going through.
You are right that is is a privilege to see faces change with age. I will do my best to remember that next time I feel irritated about my various saggy parts.
Thank you so much for that beautiful comment, Yvonne. I always appreciate your wisdom.
Love this. The mother of a kid in my son’s class died this week. I didn’t know her, but they don’t know why she died. She was my age, with a 6yo, 4yo, and a 3 month old. I can’t stop thinking about how short and precious this life truly is. You’re right that most of the trivial stuff we think about doesn’t matter, yet somehow we still have to live through all the annoying stuff. Great post!
Oh, Meredith, that is so tragic. And sobering. Those things really stick with us, especially when our kids are the same age, and WE are the same age.
I’m late to this and so glad I didn’t miss it. You’re right – the togetherness. It matters huge. As for the wrinkles? I wish I’d have appreciated how small mine were when I was younger – even your age… so I get it. Also though? What’s the alternative? Lovely awesome post.
Beautiful post, Stephanie. It brought tears to my eyes. I’m so sorry about the loss of your mom’s friend. This post is such a loving tribute to her and your mom.