The Sky Isn’t Falling

The Sky Isn’t Falling

Broken nest egg

By Sarah Coglianese

As a new mom, I experienced moments of utter bliss and moments of pure panic. I imagine that’s not unlike the experience of most first-time parents. Of course it’s not exactly the same for everyone, but it’s safe to say the adjustment period can be rife with anxiety for many of us. Among the concerns I recall having after Scarlett was born: Why was breastfeeding so much harder than I thought it would be? Why was the baby’s poop green? Why did she detest every nanosecond spent in her car seat? And why did I decide to start sleep training the night my sister-in-law and her family were staying with us, seven people in one small apartment? I guess that last one is less of an anxiety and more an example of poor decision-making.

But then there were the more obscure fears: What if the ceiling fell on her while she was sleeping? What if she was stolen out of her crib? What if she somehow got stuck in the refrigerator? Unlikely to happen though they were, these were the images that kept me up at night.

As my daughter grew, my anxieties abated. She was thriving, and developing quite a personality. A good eater, a terrible napper, alternately sweet and feisty. We got the hang of breastfeeding and took naps together in my big bed. When she was 17 months old, I quit my job and we spent days exploring our city, going to music classes, walking in the park, splashing at swimming lessons.

Then one day, I was pushing her stroller down the street when suddenly I stumbled, the stroller pitched forward, and we ended up on the ground. I scrambled to stand, to right the stroller, and then I just stood there looking down at my flip-flopped feet, one bleeding ankle. Scarlett was fine, not even crying, but my heart was racing. I pushed the stroller back to my car and told myself it was time to stop wearing flip-flops, but something in me knew that wasn’t the real problem. It wasn’t the first time I’d fallen. It wasn’t even the second or the third time. Though I’d been trying to ignore them, the falls had been happening more frequently, especially when I tried to go running. What was once my favorite activity was now nothing more than a three-minute exercise in frustration. My feet just would not lift.

Ironically, with something to actually be worried about, I stayed calm. I decided I wasn’t drinking enough water, that I was indeed wearing the wrong shoes, that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. But when Scarlett was 22 months old, I saw a neurologist who suspected Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the muscle-wasting disease that carries with it a prognosis that no one wants to hear. I’d been worried about the ceiling falling on my sleeping child. Now the sky was falling on our life together. The diagnosis was confirmed, making my new probable lifespan two to five years. No treatments, no cure. I held my baby in disbelief. I’d had such a vivid imagination when it came to what could go wrong. But a terminal illness that would slowly paralyze me until even my lungs stopped working?

That one had not occurred to me.

Despite my ALS, our lives continued. There was no other choice. I began walking with a cane, and then wearing ankle braces. Scarlett started preschool. Eventually I acquired a bright purple walker, which made me feel like a little old lady. Sure enough, when I went to visit my grandma in the senior living facility to which she had recently relocated, a woman in the elevator took one look at me and one look at my walker and said, “You don’t live here, do you?” I was 34 years old at the time, but I knew it wasn’t a foolish question. Walkers like mine were everywhere, as I made my way to my grandmother’s apartment.

Were these my people now? Aging bodies slowing down. Death no longer a future glimmer, but a reality too hard to ignore. And was my grandmother, who had no trouble walking, actually in better shape than I was? Well, yes.

I was spinning, untethered from the person I felt I had once been. A marathon runner, a devoted mom and wife, an independent woman who had never particularly liked asking for help. I was consumed by my sadness and confusion, by my anxieties about what was to come.

And then I discovered other people who were like me. Young moms and dads, people in their 20s who never had a chance to start a family, all of them living with ALS. I found them by writing about my experience, by joining a group on Facebook, and by becoming heavily involved with several nonprofit organizations that raise money for ALS research. My people, it turned out, were not the ones in the senior home who had lived long lives and had much to show for it. My people were the ones who were fighting for their lives, fighting for more time with their children, fighting a disease that we’d been told would certainly kill us–and soon.


Scarlett is five years old now. She just started kindergarten. I haven’t run in a long time, and I can’t even stand up anymore. I spend my days in a wheelchair, my hands and arms are growing so weak that I often need help eating, and a machine helps me breathe for a few hours each day.  But I am still writing, and I’m still working to raise awareness and money to end this disease.

Each new phase of my experience brings fresh anxiety, but it is important to me to keep my daughter’s life as normalized as possible, to spend time with her—just the two of us—even if a caregiver is hovering nearby or waiting in the car.

ALS is relentless, and it will take my breathing muscles away from me. I don’t know when, and the worrier in me wonders if I’ll be sitting across a restaurant table from my daughter, watching her take down two slices of pizza, when my chest gets tight and an anti-anxiety pill isn’t enough.

For now, I take breaths as deep as they come, breaths that would horrify my former yoga instructor, and tell myself it’s okay. I still have time. The sky has not fallen. No one has gotten stuck in the refrigerator. And ALS, as scary as it is, is what we’re living with. The past five years of being a mom have taught me that I can’t let the fears, real or imagined, take over my life. I can be safe, I can be prepared. But I can’t give up.

Sarah Coglianese is a writer and blogger whose work has been published in The New York Times, Redbook Magazine, and, among others. Sarah was diagnosed with ALS in 2012 at age 33, and started to raise awareness of the disease. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, their six-year-old daughter, and a puppy.

Mr. Right

Mr. Right

WO MR Right ARTBy Nancy Ludmerer

My mother had a stroke in 2010. Since then, her left leg is like putty; her left arm curls uselessly against her chest, like a broken wing. Pre-stroke, she lived in Florida, drove, and did her own shopping. Now she must have every physical need attended to. Yet, as we’ve discussed, better that her body – not her mind – failed. Her perceptions and memory remain clear.

Or so it seemed– until she told me she was getting married. It was during breakfast, as she sat in her wheelchair, sipping coffee and chewing on an English muffin, her reading glasses at the ready.  After breakfast she’d go back to her book.

“His name is Baruch,” she told me. “They’re making me marry him.”

“Who’s they?”

“You know, them.” She paused. “It’s not so bad. He’s a nice Jewish boy.”

“Mom, you’re 94. You can’t be marrying a boy.”

“That’s just an expression. He’s no kid.”

“But why get married now, at 94?”

“I’m not going to sleep with him without being married.”

“Why sleep with anyone?”

“It gets cold at night here in New York.” She didn’t seem upset. “You’ll see. Come next Sunday, I’ll be married.”

Was it a hallucination? A dream that wouldn’t let go? Sometimes my mother’s home health aide telephoned me at work because my mother didn’t want to get up. Was her marriage fantasy a rejection of the dependency that age, and the stroke, had forced upon her? Or was it signaling yet another loss, beyond the physical — the loss of self that we were so grateful hadn’t accompanied her stroke.

Where did the name Baruch come from?

Baruch means “blessed” in Hebrew. Was Baruch a metaphor, a figure from the hereafter, waiting to take her? My father’s name was Morris, not Baruch, and if there was anyone she was going to meet “over there” it was him – not someone named Baruch.

Had she known any Baruchs? I dated a Baruch once, but that was thirty-five years ago, when I was in law school in California, and my parents only heard about him during one of my visits home. Baruch was the son of our congregational rabbi in Queens and we’d met again because he was teaching at Berkeley. My family wasn’t observant – and certainly weren’t regular shul-goers. Still, when I asked my father cautiously how he’d feel if I married Baruch, he said it would be an honor: the rabbi’s son. When that relationship ended, though, it ended. There was nothing “arranged” about whom I would date or marry.

A generation earlier, my mother too married for love. In 1939 she was 19, studying library science at Simmons Colllege in Boston. At home in Jackson Heights for the holidays, she didn’t have anywhere to go on New Year’s Eve. A family friend asked my father, a poor but respectable City College graduate studying accounting at night, to find a New Year’s Eve date for Helen Strochak. He arranged for his friend Irving to take Helen and they double-dated. But Morris took one look at the petite, charming Helen and thought “am I crazy?” The rest is history – with no Baruch in sight.

Was the wedding fantasy a delayed effect of her stroke?

Right after the stroke, we read aloud to each other, to strengthen both her weakened facial muscles (which engendered the cute, crooked smile she has to this day) and her concentration. We began with Sylvia Beach’s essay about opening an American lending library in Paris in 1919. To borrow books you had to become a member, with a membership card. “This membership card was as good as a passport” wrote Beach. My mother and I both loved that essay, a testament to the power of books to transport us.

Soon my mother was reading as before. This was critical to her. She’d worked as a librarian before becoming a full-time mother and homemaker. Her love of books – and libraries – was a constant in her life. It sustained her after my father’s death as well as after her stroke.

As I pondered her fantasy marriage to the mysterious Baruch, I noticed the Posman’s bookmark peeking out of her book. It was the last book I purchased at Posman’s Books in Grand Central before it closed.

If my mother had her libraries, I had Posman’s Books in Grand Central. When I first learned many months ago that Posman’s would close, I could barely walk by the store on my way to the train; it was like having to see a former lover every day. Posman’s was my refuge; after a particularly arduous day at work, I’d lose myself among its tables, browsing for “finds.” Once I purchased a book of simple crossword puzzles for my mother instead of a novel. I’d read that crossword puzzles provide mental exercise that wards off dementia. My mother had no interest. “Don’t buy those for me, Nan,” she said, “Buy me a regular book.”

On Posman’s last day, I bought my mother the novel she was now reading: Eve Harris’s “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman,” set in an orthodox Jewish community in London.  Now, while my mother finished breakfast, I paged through the book, reading about Chani on her wedding day, “rigid under layers of itchy petticoats” listening to the men singing behind closed doors.

As my mother reached for her reading glasses, I sat silent beside her, absorbed in the details of Chani’s constricting hand-me-down seed-pearl-encrusted wedding dress — a “passport, her means of escape” from her family home.

Like a passport out of her present life, the novel had transported my mother into the body of Chani Kaufman. Chani was not only real to her, but she had become Chani, about to be wed in an arranged marriage.

Days later, my mother laughed when reminded of her fantasy. She’d finished the book and knew her own marriage wasn’t imminent. “For a little while, I believed it,” she said.

As for the groom in “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman”?

His name was Baruch.

Author’s Note: Around the time of my mother’s wedding fantasy, I read an article about the effect of reading fiction on the brain. Twenty Emory University students had MRIs of their brains taken while all reading the same novel. The study’s authors found consistent changes in each student’s cerebral cortex, and concluded that reading fiction transports the reader biologically, not just figuratively.  That’s surely what happened to my mom. Sadly, she’s reading less these days. The cake for her 95th birthday was inscribed: “Helen – 95 and Still Beautiful.” Baruch doesn’t know what he’s missing.

Nancy Ludmerer’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, Vogue, San Francisco Chronicle, and other magazines. Her essay “Kritios Boy” (published in Literal Latte) was mentioned as a Notable Essay of 2013. She lives in NYC with her husband Malcolm and cat Sandy, a brave refugee from the storm for which he is named.



Hair Today Gone Tomorrow

Hair Today Gone Tomorrow

By Anndee Hochman

Hair Today art 2“Ama, you should grow your hair long,” my 11-year-old daughter Sasha says, watching me in the fogged mirror over the sink, her round brush paused mid-stroke. I shake my head like a terrier, scattering warm droplets. Then I reach around her—it’s small, this bathroom—to the shelf where Elissa and I keep the tools of our pragmatic grooming routines: mint dental floss, paraben-free deodorant, contact lens solution, a tweezer to tug the occasional wayward hair from one another’s chins.

I rake my fingers through my short, damp hair, fluffing it with a dab of green gel—the bargain brand, $3.99 with my Acme supercard—to keep my curls standing at shiny attention for the next fifteen hours. Sasha continues to brush her own tupelo-honey tresses, like some Victorian heroine, 100 daily strokes in pursuit of radiance and contentment.

“If I grew my hair long, it would be a mess,” I say. “A fuzzy, tangled mess. C’mon, you’ve seen the pictures.”

I’m thinking of a photo snapped in the courtyard of Trumbull College my sophomore year. I’m wearing the khaki-colored sack I favored in those days to hide my body’s bulges—overalls cut loosely through the thighs and hips, cinched at each shoulder with a strap poked through a buttonhole and then double-knotted. My round cheeks are framed—no, more like swallowed—in a cloud of wild, coal-colored frizz. It looks like a long-haired animal, in shedding season, has draped itself miserably over my head.

I am not going back. I am not going back to Barry Leonard, Crimper, circa 1975, where Barry himself, rayon shirt unbuttoned nearly to his copper belt buckle, stands behind my chair, comb in one hand and mournful look in his limpid brown eyes. “Such hair. Such texture. Some day you will just let it be,” he says, lifting one thick, wavy section. Women in hot pants serve Chardonnay and brie to waiting customers; a white shag carpet hugs the walls. Pink lava lamps undulate on the reception desk.

My mother is paying Barry Leonard $25—a lot, at the time—to be one more adult telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, insisting that today’s stinging regret will, eventually, morph to gratitude. I really don’t care. I am 13 and I want straight hair like Cher, like Karen Carpenter, like Lise Abbott, the tallest and most stunning girl in my class. “Please just blow-dry it,” I say. I can see myself in the infinite mirrors, endless tunnel of shaggy-haired Anndees, all of them lock-jawed with impatience. My mother, complimentary wine in hand, fades toward the carpeted wall. Barry Leonard looks as if he might cry. The blow dryer roars, and he pulls a hank of my hair taut with the wire brush, lashing it over and under, over and under, with electric heat.

I stopped trying to straighten my hair at 16, around the time Josh and I began making out on the black leather couch in his father’s study. I’d like to say it happened in this order: I threw away the giant rollers, unplugged the blow dryer and, with a joyful, newly liberated spirit, attracted my first real boyfriend. But I think it was really the other way around: Josh gave me a stuffed koala bear, wrote cards in barely legible print saying I was pretty, and his sheepish affections buoyed my confidence enough to stop fighting my natural instincts—or, at least, the natural instincts of my hair. Josh managed to blaze a path through the tangle; his tongue found my earlobe, and he held my curls when we kissed.

Fast-forward eleven years. I live in Oregon, I kiss girls—including the one who will become my life partner—and, one impulsive afternoon, I ask Mary Newcomer at the 37th Street Salon to cut my hair short. Really short, I tell her, making a chop-chop motion around my ears. I watch as eight-inch squiggles, threaded with gray, tumble to the floor.

My mother, when she sees me a month later, will think I have done this because I’m a lesbian; short hair goes with the ripped jeans, second piercing in the left ear and requisite copy of Sinister Wisdom on the bookshelf. She’s worried: what next? A motorcycle? A labrys tattoo on my left hip? But she’ll be wrong. I’m not cutting off my hair in order to join the club. What I see in the mirror as wavy skeins fall from Mary’s shears is this: a woman who no longer needs to hide in a khaki sack or a helmet of hair.

Yes, that was me in Barry Leonard’s salon chair, crackling with want, cringing in self-mortification. Me, blistering my forehead with blow-dryers. Me, staggering through freshman year on a diet of coffee and Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. That was me, at war with my hair, with myself, until—gradually, finally, blessedly—I grew up and made peace. Such hair. Such texture. Let her be.

Fast-forward once again. Sasha wants contact lenses and high-heeled sandals and permission to wear pink lipstick out of the house. She wants to look like the girls in the Justice clothing catalogue, willow-legged and flirty in their flounced skirts. We compromise and negotiate. We give in on lip gloss, stand firm on the strappy heels, promise contacts when she turns 13. She rolls her eyes. We raise our voices. And each Friday night, we lay our palms on her silken head and whisper: “Hayei asher ti-yih, vehayi b’rucha, b’asher ti-yih. Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.”

She can barely tolerate our murmured blessing—”Stop. You’re messing up my hair,” she hisses before we’re finished—and I know, in the end, we can do only what my mother did—fade toward the wall, witnesses as Sasha finds her way.

Back to the present, our steamy little bathroom. “If you grew your hair long,” Sasha muses, “you could put it in a high ponytail—look, Ama, like this—and tie it with a pink ribbon. It would be so cute. I want you to have long hair. Did you ever? I’m going to let mine grow, down to here, and then get it layered…Will you make me a ponytail? Really tight. It’s bumpy on top; I don’t want it bumpy on top. Make it so there aren’t any little strands sticking out? No, not like that! Why won’t that piece tuck in? I. HATE. MY. HAIR!”

“I know, sweetie.” But I’ve moved on, my one-minute beauty routine is wrapped up for the day. I poke earrings through my lobes, shrug a silver bracelet onto my wrist, grab socks from the basket in the corner. Sasha continues brushing her hair, alternately beaming and scowling at herself in the mirror, trying unsuccessfully to tame the wild, electric strands.

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By Patricia O’Connor


… In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute

Will reverse…

 T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

It’s 5:48 a.m. I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. It’s been five weeks, two weeks past a reasonable deadline. I have to make a decision. It’s the same decision I make every month or so. Oh, do not ask what is it? Let us go and pay a visit…

I once disdained women like me. I considered them weak, vain, emotionally stunted. I have always been of the opinion that it is what’s inside your head that matters, not what’s on top of it.  Yet here I stand beneath the harsh, unforgiving light above the vanity mirror, ready to take stock. I ask myself, do I really want to dye? Again?

You have to understand: I had given myself a deadline. I was going to stop pretending that I’m a youthful, perky brunette sometime around, say, age 40. Okay, 45. But today, I am 50. I started coloring my hair when I was 30, when I could honestly say I was prematurely graying. Surely, I thought then, in ten years—15 at the outside—I’d be self-actualized, emotionally mature and self-confident enough to embrace my gray.

But, it’s the other part of me that generally wins these mirror-side debates. This self has never known me as anything other than brunette: brown bangs over blue eyes. Who would I be if I were (honestly) gray? When others look at me, who would they see? I think of poor defeated J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot’s anti-hero who in the course of a single poem ages from an awkward young man skirting the edges of high society to a weakened old would-have-been walking along the lonely beach, daring not even to eat a peach. In the course of a radical hairectomy, would I too be transformed, like poor J. Alfred, and become, among other things, intimidated by fruit?

Other women, more content and far more powerful than I, have accepted their silver with grace. I watch for them in grocery stores, coffee houses, and playgrounds: Dignified older women with pink cheeks to offset their silver. Intellectual women bent over books, wearing black wire-rimmed glasses that contrast with the pewter in their curls. Earth Mothers in Birkenstocks, 100 percent cotton clothing and long, loose hemp-gray braids. Lean, athletic women with their practical ponytails a-swoosh with white. So different from each other, and yet these women seem to share a kind of wisdom, or at least an acceptance, that I have yet to reach. To me, they are bastions of integrity. They seem to dare you to look beneath the surface, or in this case, the hairline, to drink in their pink cheeks, firm chins, strong characters. If you’re stopped by the salt in their pepper, they seem to say, you’re not worth your salt.

I want to be just like them. And I don’t want to be gray.

I know that time will come for me when I am finally at peace with my age, my face, myself. I will cut off the hair I’ve waited so patiently to grow out, let the white roots become wiry, white spikes, and then we will see who is who.

The question is, is today that day?

It’s not that simple.  This isn’t just about me. I dye for others.

*   *   *

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

I think of my 14-year-old daughter, Katie. Of course, I was dying my hair long before she was born. Even during my pregnancy, I pleaded with my midwife to let me color my hair. I used natural facsimiles throughout the slow and queasy first trimester. Day one of week 13, I broke the seal on my trusty box of L’Oréal. My daughter was born to a brunette mother.

A brunette mother shepherded her to preschool, cut up apples and partitioned graham crackers for her classmates, sat cross-legged (she can’t be gray, she’s still limber) in story circle. A brunette mother escorted Katie to kindergarten, first grade, second. I didn’t want to admit that while other mothers were pushing 25, maybe 35, I was cresting 45. Maybe there were other mothers of third, fourth, or fifth graders who had a touch of silver at the temples, but few were white from brow to nape as I suspect I was.  How embarrassing, I reasoned, it might have been for my poor Katie if those other, younger mothers were to ask, “Who is this nice older lady who picks you up every afternoon?”  It doesn’t seem to traumatize my daughter even now when she witnesses her mom’s hair going from BROWN to soft brown to hazy brown to are-those-highlights to what-color-is-that-anyway to BROWN again, just so long as Mom isn’t gray.

Katie likes to inspect my hair after I’ve colored it, poking through the undergrowth like a baby chimpanzee grooming her mother. “You missed a spot,” she’ll inform me, but usually it’s an area in the back where most people wouldn’t see. She likes being part of this color conspiracy. I wonder what I’m teaching her about her own appearance.  I tell her to embrace who she is as she is, but how credible am I? My girl is so beautiful, although she can’t seem to see it. Her blue-green eyes are bright and full of energy. Her smile is infectious. And her long hair is a soft brown with golden highlights. I know many women who would pay big money for her hair color. (I color my hair on the cheap. At least I’m teaching her frugality.) Recently, she informed me that she wants to dye her hair colors that wouldn’t pass dress code at her school: purple, teal, or jet black.

Maybe it is just human to want to manipulate nature. As I walk across the community college campus where I teach, I notice the 18- to 22- year-old women who dye their hair: Peroxide blondes streaked with black, blue or red. Mahogany brunettes striped with hot pink or yellow highlights, and the striking, lean woman with the cut biceps and spiky tomato red hair. I march north, trying to look natural, while women half my age glide south trying to look preternatural.

Lately, I’ve noticed the co-eds who dye the top layer of their hair gray, the color of cobwebs, so that their natural color peaks through—a reverse two-tone. Of course, on them, it looks good. The undeniable luminosity of youth can’t be hidden by dyes, cosmetics, or even zits.. I watch these girls now with their hanks of cobweb and wonder if at the root of it all—beneath the ageless desire each generation has to separate itself from the last, beneath the youthful need to make a statement, make an impact, or at least make friends—if the gray across the crown might be an attempt to dim what might otherwise be an unbearable light.

I speak for women my age . We want it back. We took that luminosity for granted when we had it, and now we’ll pay Estée Lauder or Mary Kay whatever they want to return what had once been ours for free. Age-defying, wrinkle-concealing, lip-swelling, color-enhancing, gray-covering—it’s like we’re trying to Photoshop our features, or worse, take a Thorton Wilderesque trip back in time. If we could only have that skin, that hair, those long, firm arms again, even for a brief moment, this time we’d appreciate them. More accurately, perhaps we’d appreciate ourselves and the personal power cut biceps imply.

Most of Katie’s friends don’t realize I’m that much older than their mothers.  It is not my face that gives me away. I don’t have wrinkles, per se, although, my jaw line is beginning to appear a bit jowly, and my eyes—once my most dramatic and attractive feature—are more sunken than they once were. Still, I would like to think I have the face of a woman closer to 40 than 50. When my hair is correspondingly youthful, I can almost convince myself, if not others, that I’m 39 and holding.

They say 50 is the new 30, but that doesn’t mean 60 is the new 40, or that it should be. Go too far with this dyeing thing and you begin to look kind of pathetic—a modern-day Miss Havisham clinging desperately to Lady Clairol’s veil. This is not the person I want to be, nor is it the person I want my daughter to see.

When Katie was 10, I asked her what she would think if I just went gray.

“No! Don’t do it, Mom,” she said. She looked at me as if I had asked what she’d think of me turning myself into a flying squirrel. “That would be disgusting.”

“What about when I’m 89?” I asked.

“Not when your 90 or 332,” she said and sat on my lap. She stroked my hair with one hand.  “I don’t want you to be old.”

A child’s world view: gray = old. To her, this means that as long as I color my hair I will not age. This is the sort of magical thinking that keeps Lady Clairol in the black. It’s also what keeps me hooked: as long as I don’t look 53 to her 15, or 56 to her 19, maybe Katie and I will remain close, the way we are now, the way I wasn’t with my mother when I believed she was a hoary, white-haired relic and she knew for certain I was a snarky, foul-mouthed teen. Of course, snark happens no matter what.  And Katie will have to find her own way of being in the world, apart from me.  In a few years, it will be she who glides away through a college campus, perhaps with hair the color of cantaloupe and raspberries. Still, there is a small part of me that half believes that if I can remain the brunette mother Katie has always known, she will remain the sweet, unaffected girl she has always been. I want Katie to be comfortable with who she is. But how can I model self-acceptance if I continue to hide my gray hair in shame. You don’t need to tell me, I know:  Too much is riding on Medium Brown # 5.

*   *   *

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a white spot in the middle of my hair—

And so I spin, twisted and knotted. The face in the mirror appears strained and not a little frumpy. My eyes are still puffy with sleep. Pillow creases still mark my cheek. But there is more to it. I look deeply tired, the kind of tired a hot shower and a cup of coffee can’t fix.

Mentally, I flash through all the self-help tips I’ve scanned in back issues of More, O Magazine, or Health that clutter my stylist’s salon. I could take up yoga or meditation. I could do that variable-speed walking thing. I could drink green tea and eat more fiber.  I really should lose 10 pounds. Maybe 15. Okay, 30. But, to do so would require months of self-discipline and denial.

Or, I could dye my hair.

In the course of 45 smelly minutes, I could appear—if not svelte and strong—alert and maybe even pretty. I would feel instantly better about myself. Isn’t that worth $9.99? Dyeing is cheaper than therapy.

I fumble in the bathroom cabinet for the box. I always have at least one stashed in the back, in case of a color emergency.  I know what to do:  I’ll pull on the vinyl gloves; pierce the colorant tube with the rapier tip embedded in the cap, mix colorant with developer. Shake. I will fill the bathroom with those familiar fumes, press the pointy plastic applicator against my scalp and squeeze.

I set the box on the counter unopened.

Deciding shouldn’t be this hard, but it almost always is. If there weren’t carpools to drive, lunches to pack, papers to grade, I might stand before this mirror forever and never be sure.

To be fair, I haven’t given gray a chance.  Facing the mirror, I pull back my hair on either side of my part. Silvery roots shine like a path of moonlight through a dark sea. In a moment, my eyes, once bright, become sunken; my skin appears sallow. Freckles darken into age spots. I grow old…I grow old…

I am a Lady J. Prufrock, paralyzed by indecision, eviscerated by fear, aging at exponential speed in the glass. Opportunities I once considered but never seized flash before me. Each retreating possibility leaves a bitter residue like dust, white, across my crown. I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.

I release my hair as if it’s on fire. It springs up, and with it seemingly do my features. Eyes brighten, double chin recedes, freckles—yes, they are definitely freckles— lighten.

Not yet, not yet, not yet, I chant quietly.

I may be getting older, but I am not yet old. Neither am I the frightened 20-something, or hesitant 30-something woman I once was. If my midwife was right about women who give birth after age 35, I may well live into my 90s, or even to 100. I have years, years, for visions and revisions of the person I wish to be. And, frankly, Lady Clairol and friends, you have nothing to do with it.

And yet, Lady, you have everything to do with it.  Hair color, I realize, is not just a crutch, it is a talisman. I keep a box of dye in my bathroom cabinet for the same reason monks in the Middle Ages kept skulls above the tables where they illuminated holy texts: It reminds me of my mortality. It reminds me that the moment is fleeting and precious. Eventually, the color will fade; the skull will remain. Is this all? I want to turn Prufock upside down, spin him on his shiny, balding pate:

[It would] have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead…

All I can tell is that I do not wish to be a Prufrock, to play time’s passive victim. Unlike poor, paralyzed Alfred, I must choose and choose and choose.

Today, I choose to dye. Quietly, I turn the lock on the bathroom door and break the seal on the box. Once again, I engage in my own private alchemy. I start to hum. I can almost hear the mermaids sing along.

Patricia O’Connor tries to lead a colorful life in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she lives with her husband Jeff and daughter Kate. Patricia teaches English full time at Central New Mexico Community College. In her spare time, she writes, sings, travels and goofs around with her family.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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What It Means When the Spanx Catalogue Appears In Your Mailbox

What It Means When the Spanx Catalogue Appears In Your Mailbox

By Aline Weiller

0-1I got the Spanx catalog in the mail today.  Yes, there is an actual Spanx catalog, showcasing every variation on this magic, modern-day girdle.  I’m not sure who tipped off the cellulite police, but there it was, that catalog, in my mailbox, waiting for me to order some form-fitting device made to disguise any hint of motherhood or mid-life.  Talk about an AH-HA moment.

Am I at the Spanx stage of my life?  Really?  Is it not enough that I’m in the throes of peri-menopausal power nesting?  Must I be reminded of unfit thighs to boot?  Maybe it was a mail mishap, I rationalized.  But, no, my name spanned the label in all its glory.  Apparently, I was the intended recipient, the proverbial target market.  Ugh.  I peeled out of the driveway.

It took a King Size Hershey Bar and mani/pedi to lift me from my funk.  The salon walls were a cheery pink, but the lighting dim with irony.  Younger women at my sides — friends in tennis attire — spoke right through me, their perky words a contrast to my predicament.  “I’ve got a great new girl who does my brows, I’ll text you her name,” the blonde with dark roots chirped.  “Terrif,” her freckled friend replied.

Suddenly polished, I decided my mailbox epiphany was a positive sign, a gentle reminder I was embarking on a new life chapter.  Nails buffed and painted, I stood ready to take on the world, tissue between my toes and all.

Until at a doctor’s office later that day, when once again I was reminded of my mature phase.  “Insurance card, please.  Is everything the same?” asked the busy receptionist.  Yes, except that I’ve entered the Spanx demographic, I thought, then confirmed my information, clipboard in hand.   The nurse kindly said I didn’t look my age, while the doctor gave me the ole’, “Now’s the time to come into your own.”  Though an unlikely setting for this clichéd advice, I embraced it and mapped out goals for the potential Spanx-sporting me.

As for my catalog, it’s bedside bound, on-call should I need to give it a gander.  I haven’t been moved to make a purchase, but there it’s perched — part stylist, part lifeline, urging me to stay active.  Did I mention I scheduled an extra session with my trainer this week?  I scan it nightly as the choices abound — bras, leggings, apparel and activewear that all promise “On-the-Go-Flattery” and come in different “Power Levels” — medium or hardcore, a control freak’s nirvana.  You can even “Shop by Body Part,” no joke.

But, wait, it doesn’t stop there.  Spanx swimwear (a.k.a. the “Miracle Suit”) exists and creates a more palatable beach body.  Maybe not Baywatch results, but passable for spring break with the fam.  Men, too, can sport Spanx as there are “Shapewear” and “Compression Shirt” offerings for the flabby set.  There’s even a go-to “Starter Kit” for the ever-economical guy.  The selection is endless.  Kudos must go out to Spanx founder, Sara Blakely, who Forbes named the youngest self-made billionaire, for dreaming up the Best. Idea. Ever.

My brush with Spanx has served a dual purpose: a helpful reminder not to “pack-in-it” and reason to celebrate the modern-day me.  Who says I can’t wear skinny jeans, Converse sneakers, and the occasional bedazzled tee?  It’s who I am, despite my birthday.  If need be, I’ve got a back-up wardrobe in my trusty catalog.  I’ve even been eyeing a Spanx-infused LBD (little black dress) named the “Bod-A-Bing,” I’d don, if need be.  My perspective, and mid-section, were on the brink of change.

With newfound vigor, I made Type A to-do lists.  Work out more.  Check. Launch my own business. Check.  Have more “me time.”  On the horizon.  Buy Spanx.  Done.  Change was a good thing I thought, contemplating a “Carpe Diem” bumper sticker.  In fact, reinvention rocks (thank-you Madonna).

Let this be a shout-out to fortysomethings everywhere, it’s really okay to have a Spanx calling.  Let it spur you to start anew, as it’s done me.  Join the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Spanx,” why don’t you?   Repeat after me, “Spanx is my friend.”  We all need a little help from our friends, right?

Aline Weiller is a freelance writer/journalist whose work has been featured in print/online publications and blogs.  She is also the founder of the public relations firm, Wordsmith, LLC, based in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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By Jenny Fiore

Art Faithfully“Grandma’s such a funny woman, isn’t she?” I say.

“She’s not a woman,” my daughter harumphs. “She’s an old lady!”

“Maybe to you,” I say. “Why do you think she’s old?”

“Because she’s all wrinkly,” she says.

I pause to look at her smooth, pink skin freckled by six summers. I remember how my grandma looked to me at that age, very pretty but saggy in the face.

“You’re wrinkly, too,” she tells me.

I check to see if she’s wearing her teasing eyes, but they aren’t there. These are her matter-of-fact ones.

“Maybe to you,” I say.

It bothers me that my daughter will never know me as a young woman, a girl with a wild streak, someone who could still turn a back flip at 25. It bothers me that I can’t introduce my six-year-old self to her six-year-old self, let them be friends. I think they would be, but that’s not really what’s eating at me. It’s my own mortality, and how much more aware of it I am through my daughter’s eyes. Do I really have to leave her someday? Impossible.

The next week we are driving from the hospital, where my dad is in the cardiac unit again. He’s recovering as well as can be expected, but the sight of him makes me weak. He’s going to need a heart transplant, soon, and the waist at the hourglass of his life feels horrifyingly wide. I feel heavy all over my body, like someone has poured sand in my veins. My daughter had brought him a drawing of a unicorn, handing it over while eyeballing his IV tubes and the bags and machines hovering around him like soul-sucking ghouls. The sharp angles and bloodlessness of his face when he smiled were almost unbearable. Is he really going to leave me someday? Impossible. Not my dad.

On our way home, we pass the cemetery where I’m told comedian Chris Farley is buried. It’s catty-corner to a high school, plopped on a sort of island between roads that cross each other at berserk angles chopping the land into pie-pieces. One stretch of the cemetery is basically on a really wide median, separated from the other graves by the road on which my daughter and I are driving. There’s just no averting our eyes and pretending we’re not driving through a death park. I look in the rearview mirror to see what my daughter’s making of all those gravestones, going on and on and on like a threat so thinly disguised as a promise.

“Look at that enormous one,” I say. “That’s ridiculous, trying to look so important even after you’re dead.”

“I like the one with the flowers,” she says as we pass a grave surrounded by wrought-iron plant hangers with blossoms cascading out of them. “Mom, when I die, what kinds of flowers are you going to bring to my grave?”

Trying not to look sucker-punched, I tell her I’m going to die first, because I’m the mom and she’s the kid. That’s how it usually goes. Then I ask her what flowers she’ll bring to me. I don’t remember what she says because I’m frightened by all of it. I don’t ever want to leave her. In the rearview mirror, I check again, and she looks just fine.

“You know what would be funny?” she says. “If after you died, you came back as a ghost and you lived in our house!”

I tell her I don’t want to do that, and she furrows her brow and asks why.

“Because I want to go to heaven and get things ready for you there.” I feel dirty inside, being so trite.

“Good,” she tells me. “We’re going to have a lot of fun together in heaven.”

My crow-footed eyes narrow at myself in the mirror, and I feel like such a liar: Despite my best efforts, I haven’t any real faith that there’s a heaven. I tell her I do, but I don’t. I have only the hope and inclination to believe there’s something after all of this. I’ve made myself okay with lying about this one thing. Because maybe it’s not really a lie. And maybe it’s the only way we can drive by cemeteries, looking at the backs of our wrinkled parents’ heads leading the way to death in front of us.

Author’s Note: When I wrote this piece, my dad was scrabbling along with a grisly pump-assist device, waiting for a new heart. I was in a constant state of heightened anxiety while trying to keep my kids from worrying about losing their grandpa. Not an easy balancing act for a gal with a lifelong death-phobia. I don’t remember which came first—my fear of my parents’ mortality or my fear of my own—but neither held a candle to the fears that came with being a mom. That’s when the anxiety was no longer about only me and my parents dying but also about my children’s mortality and their fears about their own mortality and their fears about the mortality of their parents and grandparents, and—good God, get a hold of yourself, woman! I like to think my anxiety about death is some crooked expression of how much I love my life instead of a sign of cowardice or faithlessness. I’m still hoping for a heaven, still not certain it’s there, still telling my kids it will be, and indescribably grateful for the organ donor who gave us all a little more time to be together, a little more time to find our way.

About the Author: Jenny Fiore lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, two children, five hens, and a tomcat. She is a Pushcart Prize Special Mention honoree for her essay “A Year at the Lake,” which appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Brain, Child. “Older” appears in her newly released collection of literary and humor essays, After Birth: Unconventional Writings from the Mommylands (Possibilities Publishing, March 2013).

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.