Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Aging is not the enemy. Not aging is. Put THAT in a commercial, Lancome.

      It is night and you are writing at your kitchen table. You don't want to be there, you wish you were in bed, but this has to be done. You have very small children, and your health has deteriorated to the point where you're trying to clarify instructions in your will to your legal replacement. It isn't going well. Instead of religion, education, medical information, you start to write about forwarding the parts with Ursula the Sea Witch and the right way to go for a walk (plan for about an hour per block; everything gets appreciated and discussed) and the importance of memorizing all the words to "In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines" (you haven't been schooled until a four year old reprimands you with disappointed gravity). In other words, you are in for a bad night.
    This is the moment where you will find yourself paralyzed by the incalculable weight of a mother-shaped black hole in the lives of the little ones you swore to protect from harm. Because you've realized that you're the one who is going to hurt them the most, in the end.  You will think of all the holidays, the birthdays, the average days. You imagine your child wearing a photo of you in a locket on her wedding day, so that you can be there 'in spirit', or maybe instead of a locket, there's a tattoo of your name along her ribcage, like a scar from an almost mortal wound. You're blinded by tears now, no chance of finishing the will; instead, you stand in the shower and howl into a soaked towel like an abandoned wolf in a trap, all the while trying not to wake little dreamers with feety pajamas.
     It is a crucible, this illness.  It will reshape your skin, your bones, your flesh, and eventually, your mind. Your vanity stands as much chance as paper in a fire. Not only will you not care about wrinkles and muffin tops, you'll forget that you ever did. 
     Your tether to a normal life, to simple routines, the listen-to-the-dishwasher-run-while-you-watch-tv-as-a-family kind, will disappear under a mountain of dirty laundry, neglected bedtime routines, uncared-for children.  Your body swings with wild circles of the pendulum, from swollen to skeletal and back again. You can judge how you look by the way a stranger's eyes pass over you; those are the good days. On the bad days they will flinch, unable to hide their initial grimace of shock.  
     Every useless visit to a doctor, every trip to the ER, every listless hour staring at the crack above your bed, you will leave parts of yourself behind. Some days you are already a ghost, moving through a house left clean by other women.  You smile lovingly at the children playing in the family room,  their games new and unknown to you. They seem very far away, those little ones. Part of you knows this distance should concern you.
      And then the wheel turns again. There is no dramatic call from the hospital, no dropped phone from nerveless hands, no opportunity to burst into tears while thanking God, no triumphant announcement to the family, no "We're out of the tall grass, it's all downhill from here, they said I'll die an old woman." No chance for tried and true cliches. Instead, slow dying will quietly turn into slow living. The mysterious, undiagnosed illness receeds like a poisonous tide, the doctor remains baffled, recovery is vague and creeping. The work of putting a storm-wrecked family back together will be even slower.  I am thirty four.  I cry the day I turn thirty five. 
     The day I turn forty, I drive to the mall with the children and buy an overpriced tube of the reddest lipstick I can find. The pretty saleswoman is barely out of her teens. I tell her it's my fortieth birthday. I probably seem a little intense for a makeup counter. She tells me not to feel bad, there's wonderful anti-aging foundation she'd love to show me. I tell her today is one of the best days of my life and she smiles uncomfortably as she hands over the tiny black paper bag.  
     A year after that, my child, now a pre-teen, will discover a silver strand in my hair. I'm sitting in the library, using the computer, my daughter standing behind me, running her fingers along my head, and the man at the computer next to us most likely thinks us insane as we laugh out loud.  I say "No. Really?" She says "Really. For real, it's there. It's silver, no, maybe it's white, oh wait, there might be two," and we laugh again and slap high five and she wanders off. The man scowls and moves down one chair. I feel like a six year old with their first loose tooth.  I've been released from limbo; that progressive direction so obvious and easy for the rest of the world, now it is finally mine for the taking. Forward: the motion of functional people. 
     I am healthy now, with a few insignificant exceptions, and I see the years stretching in front of me, immeasurable bounty. I am greedy for all of it.  Every year is a win. I know the enemy now. It isn't getting old, it isn't looking old. It is not being there to see my children grown. Time is a bitch, no two ways about it, but I fear lost time, time not spent with loved ones, time without a future, the kind where pages are ripped out of the book before the end of the story. That's the real enemy, the one that makes my blood run cold. 
      I defeat it with every silver strand, every laugh line, the changing shape of my aging face, my obviously middle-aged hands, my increasingly middle-aged concerns.  It's defeated by the casual evenings I spend with the girls, laughing at sitcoms while the dishwasher runs in the background, the kind of lifestyle that makes bohemians shudder and cross themselves. We have shared jokes that only we understand. We have memories of board games, walks by the lake, the winter we all took turns having the flu, burned suppers, arguments over dirty laundry, too-short skirts, and clothes borrowed without permission. Our memories. Ours. We three. Not my legal replacement. Not well meaning, loving extended family. I am here. I am victorious. I am winning the battle. 
     Outsiders see an unremarkable woman, just another soccer mom, nothing to note except for unusually heavy circles under her eyes and an un-toned, decidedly non-MILF body, legacies from chronic pain and a whimpy thyroid. There is nothing more pedestrian and unassuming than soccer mom life, hours spent grocery shopping, knitting in line at the bank, driving to school, to games, always driving somewhere...outsiders see a beat up minivan, a tired looking soccer mom, two teens, most likely snarling at each other, or at me.
     They don't know they're looking at veterans of a war. They don't see that we're winning. They don't understand; they have their own worries, their own fears and struggles.  We don't mind.  We are gracious in victory. 

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