Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Great Hair Migration...

… and other self-realizations as we grow older.

Two days before my mother’s 88th birthday, I was with her in the hospital. She was weak, she was tired, and she had been terribly alone since my father had passed some years earlier. In the midst of her surrendering to machines and strangers to help her do the things that we all take for granted – those things we all assume we will do for ourselves forever, things which makes us completely human and vulnerable -- she started to laugh. It was the first ‘real’ laugh I had heard from her in a while, especially since she had gotten so sick. In the middle of what we would normally consider an earth-shattering, mortifying personal hygiene crisis, my mother laughed and said ‘God sure has his ways of keeping us humble’. Her laugh was contagious, and her words lingered. Two days after her 88th birthday, she went to meet The Big Guy herself.

Since then, I have held her words dear to my heart, and I find strength in them, especially as I start this ‘aging’ thing myself. While pondering this, I realized that each age we reach has its own perspective of time and age. Once I was potty trained, I really didn’t give any thought to bathroom issues anymore. At that point, milestones were being able to walk to school alone and being old enough to play with Barbie dolls. Daylight savings time was a cruel trick. Christmas seemed to always take forever to arrive. In my teens, high school graduation was the holy grail. We focused on leaving home, getting a drivers license, that first kiss and our biggest hygiene concern was the latest hairstyle and hiding a new zit that erupted on Friday morning. In my twenties, it was pretty much about me. I was on top of the world, with tight boobs, flat tummy, gorgeous thick hair, a killer smile. At the end of those years, kids entered the scene and toilet issues jumped back on the front burner, but aging was something that was not even on the radar. Fifty was as good as dead. Thirties and forties? We had a better idea of what old age was, but we were NOT anywhere near it. We couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible.

Then we hit fifty. Once again, a shitty day becomes more than just a metaphor. We see our friends aging, have lost some along the way, and by some magical twist of God’s wrist, we swap roles with our parents. They become our concern. We watch their aging, we see their challenges, and we wonder what age will hold in store for us, and if some amazingly brilliant scientist will come up with a way to prevent it. So far, that hasn’t happened, and thus begins…


Hair: For many, there is that first lock from that first haircut, safely and lovingly stored away between the pages of a book. Used bookstores probably throw out bushels of precious locks, long forgotten in books that, for years, served no purpose other than to help boost up that duff leg on the table. As parents, we long for that first haircut, that first milestone in the life of a baby. We laugh as their hair grows, the more unruly, the better. Then those precious darlings hit their teen years, and we pray for them to do something about that damned greasy mop on their heads. Hair becomes a symbol of independence, a source of pride and power, our first means of defiance.

Many years ago, while at the home of a new acquaintance, I was looking at a stack of old pictures taken from the weddings of people I had not yet met. In the course of looking, I set them out on the table in proper chronological order. It wasn’t magic, or the gift of some inner vision. I didn’t look at the leaves on the trees, the color of the sky or the girth of any one waist, because those weren’t true indicators. The one undeniable tell-tale of the passing years was in the hairlines of the men as they inched further and further back.

Here’s the great lesson for the day: natural hair never lies. With it, we can look at someone and determine their age, health, social class, living conditions, diet and lifestyle. Someone undergoing chemo may have none. Movie stars have long full thick flowing locks that are always perfectly done. For a soldier, the telltale hair means business and dedication, nothing to hide at all, because from the moment he steps into boot camp and hears those buzzers, his life is not really his own anymore – defiance and rebellion fully contained. For a politician, millions will be spent on hiding the truth behind a good head of hair; it’s the price of power.

Men’s hair never really just ‘falls out’. It moves. Some of it slips down into their eyebrows, even to the point of requiring hedge trimmers to keep them under control. Some sneaks off and hides in their ears, or up their noses. I defy you to find me a twenty-year-old boy checking his ears for hair to pluck. The hair on a man’s chest starts the great trek north, over the shoulders and down the back. I have no idea if men obsess the way women do. On them, it’s a sign of wisdom, maturity, like a fine blend of herbs now allowed to infuse the whole dish.

As I stood in the shower this morning, undertaking the usual routine, I contemplated this issue of age. I checked to see how much of my hair is falling out. Does it feel more limp? Thinner? I would love for every other aspect of me to be thinner, but not my hair. It’s not fair that it always volunteers first for that duty. My hair has been braided, styled, curled, permed, straightened, conditioned and colored… but now I am just glad it’s still on my damned head. With age, however, I realize that men are not the only victims of the great hair migration. Twenty years ago, it never entered my mind that I might have to wake up early in the morning because I want to wear sandals that day – so I better shave my toes. Before, I used to spend time trying to find the ultimate way to keep the hair off my legs. Well, it tends to not be such an issue there… because it seems it too has migrated north -- to my face. Now I spend time in the store searching the shelves for a way to color it, remove it or at the very least style it, since it’s right there on my mug, for all the world to see. I think of the old milk ‘wear a moustache’ campaign and thank God it’s no longer on the television – because it might just mean I would have to kill someone.

We’re talking hair here. Does it never stop becoming an obsession for us? Then I think of Mom, in that hospital bed. She would wake up and ask me to comb her hair for her, so it was ‘presentable’. Never once did she concern herself with the sparse hair on her legs – her back was too painful to allow her to bend over to see it anyways. Hair on her toes? Who could tell when they were tucked in slippers, on feet that had seen 88years of hard labor and now showed that undeniable wear and tear. Armpits? She never lifted her arms anymore, so who would care. She was neat, clean, presentable, and she was Mom. She had more important things to worry about… chewing her food with store-bought teeth, trying to hear what you were saying because she couldn’t afford the hearing aid she needed. Her concern for the day: wondering what her kids, and their kids, were doing, what challenges they were facing that day, and how they would overcome those challenges to go on and face the next. Hair on her toes? That was for amateurs.

Baby Boomers, Unite! We shall overcome... or not, but we should at least have some fun in the process. Look at yourself, at the events of your day, and share with us your realizations and perspectives. Seriously, it will make this old age thing maybe not so unbearable after all.

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