I want my daughter to see aging as the expansive process it can be. I want her to remain curious about, and not just terrified of, what’s inevitable about being alive: It is all temporary.
I was present for my maternal grandmother’s death. It happened while she was in hospice care at my mother’s home, and it was the first, but not the last death I would see up close. My family and I sat with my grandmother’s body for nearly an hour before the hospice organization arrived to remove it from my mother’s guest room.
If you had asked me even hours earlier whether or not I wanted to see my grandmother’s body in the minutes after her death—without the taut skin of a body filled with embalming fluid, without a carefully selected outfit from her tasteful closet, without makeup—I would have emphatically said no. But it so happened she died only moments after I had arrived, and there I was, standing with my family in a room that contained her recently no-longer-alive form.
It was not at all as I might have imagined it. The most surprising thing was that I was not afraid of my grandmother’s dead body. The second most surprising thing was that I was curious about it. Her jaw lazily gaped to reveal a mouthful of fillings my grandfather, a dentist, had given her. Twenty-five minutes after she stopped breathing, she urinated. I was rapt. The body has a whole process for dying, disappearing, or perhaps becoming something else entirely, something we cannot yet know.
But there was no denying, even in death, that my grandmother was beautiful. Though her brain had been ravaged by disease, her appearance was largely unchanged. She was tall for a woman of 77, 5’9 or more, and as lithe as she was in the photos my grandfather had taken on their honeymoon. Her jawline remained crisp and elegant. And her hair, snow white and cut into her trademark pixie, shone against the yellowed hospital pillow.
She had aged like a supermodel and died practically a marble cast of herself. She was a Meryl. An Emmy Lou.
That snow white pixie was a signature of my grandmother’s style, a perfect compliment to her enviable bone structure, which I did not inherit. No, I have the darker, shorter, curvier genes of my father’s side. But my hair, too, is the physical feature I’m best known for: coffee brown, long, and curly. Or, at least, it used to be brown. Since my 20s, I have been gradually, quietly, surreptitiously going gray.
And not my grandmother’s glorious, striking white—no, my grays are silver and wiry, the very epitome of aging. Of mortality.
Let’s get real: Every five weeks, I spend $120 at the salon to have my curls cut and colored a rich brown with burgundy highlights, a more dynamic version of my original hue. My appointments last around two hours. My stylist, Cassey, and I chat while she applies the color to my roots, and then I sit alone for 40 blissful minutes to let it set. I sip tea, eat Hershey kisses from a ceramic bowl, and flip through fashion and entertainment magazines I’d never read at home: Glamour, People, occasionally Rolling Stone. Then, Cassey rinses and cuts my curls into layers. I leave the salon feeling refreshed and pampered. Feeling myself.
This last one is tricky. In an age where we have finally begun to value the importance of one’s identity as it is expressed by outward appearances, I’m lately struggling with my hair color. I’m at odds with myself, embracing my right to age however I please, with brown hair or pink, with Botox or Spanx, while simultaneously dreaming of the day when women can age as men do, retaining appeal and respect even if their hair thins and grays, their stomachs sag, or their skin puckers and wrinkles.
It is not for my husband that I pay for this hair regimen. Last month, when our bank account was at its leanest (we’re teachers, and summers are hard), I put off my salon appointment for a few weeks. My roots silvered more than an inch, crowning my head in dull metal. Each morning, I tried to mask that silver by pinning my hair this way and that, but I also have an active 18-month-old daughter, and I couldn’t hole up in the house no matter how much my roots discomfited me.
One day during that protracted period between appointments, we took Benna to the playground, and my husband snapped a photo of me holding her hand as she led us toward the slides. When I saw the photo, my eyes bypassed the sweetness of the moment and immediately zoomed in on my hair. I groaned.
Jason chose his words carefully. “It’s your hair,” he said, “and I love it no matter what you do with it. But I hope to see it gray someday. I want to see your hair at every age.”
Jason really gets the whole “till death do you part” thing. I’m almost 33 years old. I’ve had a child. We’ve been together almost 10 years, and he has already seen my body through some radical change. He marveled with me when my belly turned planetary, and when my breasts first became swollen and tender, then soft and pliable after our daughter finished nursing. He isn’t interested in staying married to the person I was when we met. He looks forward to being married to the person I will become.
I wonder, too, how my hair could instruct my daughter. Besides the obvious expense I could be putting toward her college fund, my salon appointments send a number of conflicting messages. I don’t know if I can safely say that I color my hair simply because it makes me feel good, or if I feel good (read: visible, relevant) because coloring my hair allows me to flaunt conventional standards of attractiveness.
And of course, what if I choose to color past the age our culture considers appropriate for women to have burgundy-tinted hair? How do I emphasize the value and authenticity of choice while maintaining honesty about age? About death? These are the questions I consider each time I schedule my next appointment.
It’s not easy to get older in our society, which pushes seniors to the periphery, sequesters them, ignores them. Aging is even harder for women, who must age a certain way, like my grandmother, in order to be valued beyond age 40. This is both a familiar problem of sexism, and a symptom of our death-phobic culture desperately trying to fight mortality with veganism and CrossFit and cosmetic surgery (all of which can bring wonderful improvements to one’s quality of life).
My grandmother’s death was the beginning of a slew of deaths in my family: next, my grandfather, and then my aunt, and then, most devastatingly, my father at age 63. I became pregnant with my daughter six months later, moved across the country and back again, and began to learn how life reveals the dead over and over, deepening, not lessening, what they mean to us. What I’ve experienced in the last few years of my life has shown up in my writing—new subjects, new perspectives, what I believe is greater wisdom and compassion—and in my body, my face, my hair. I want my daughter to see aging as the expansive process it can be. I want her to remain curious about, and not just terrified of, what’s inevitable about being alive: It is all temporary.
I once read a Facebook post written by a woman who was, at that moment, sitting beside her father on his deathbed. A former professor, whose beloved wife had recently died, commented with two words that have stayed with me as I consider the ways I want to grow older, revealing myself with both honesty and authenticity (the definitions of which sound similar, but are different) to my loved ones: Watch everything.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.