Beauty for Today, Too

I could not stop crying yesterday even as my kids hung around me and looked stressed, even after I stared into my HappyLight until it felt like I’d journeyed to the heart of the sun. Today my face is an old water balloon, like I knew it would be.

When I slammed my alarm off and opened my Bible this morning, this is what greeted me:

“All flesh is like the grass

And all its glory like the flower of grass.

The grass withers,

and the flower falls,

but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And this word is the good news that was preached to you.*

And, friends, that’s truly where my hope lies–and my grandmother’s. It’s not in tightening or whitening creams, not in regimens or good lighting or even temporary good health. Our hope lies in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by which he purchased forgiveness of our sins, and it lies in the promise of eternal life with him. The promise of himself as the ultimate gift. It really is more than enough for today, tomorrow, and forever.

*1st Peter 1:24-25 (ESV)

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Beauty for Ashes

There is something bizarre about staring at your 39-year-old face in the mirror, the one that’s held up ‘til now (more or less) but is beginning to give up the fight, not all at once, but in little slip-ups under the eyes and near the nose, while also thinking about your dying grandmother. She doesn’t want to die right now, but pancreatic cancer doesn’t care what she wants, and you watch the familiar melt away, one day at a time. She doesn’t pencil in her brows anymore or wear the pixie-cut wig she paid so much for during chemo. That’s how you know where things stand.

You look at your own face and think about how you’ll get even older than you are now, older than this. The fat pads that have already begun their Emperor Penguin march down your face will sink further until they hang like chicken cutlets toward the center of your expression—you’ve seen it on others–and you think about the way you plan to hold them up without plastic surgery, like Natural Woman magazine said: Smile even when you aren’t happy.

But you know you’ll keep being shocked at your reflection until you die because your grandmother is shocked at hers and she’s 81. Only in her case, the fat isn’t resting along her jawline, log-jammed and soft and sweet. It’s gone. And you realize for the first time how very good fat is, how much you love and need it to feel normal.

You start crying, again, because you love her so much and because it’s unacceptable to watch her evaporate like this. You think about the futility of everything, of the hair color you use and the tinted sunscreen, of the 10K you’re trying to run. You hate yourself for wondering if your tears are, even now, speeding up the aging process. You dab your eyes with toilet paper (never tug), and you Google medium coverage CC creams that cost a little more than you can afford. Because you can’t not care, God help you, though none of it matters in the end. You notice your eyes get small when you cry, but are nice enough under makeup, what with your inherited good eyebrows. Like her eyes used to be.

All the hanging on, the self-pity, it’s ashes and dust. You’ll end up there anyway, you think, if you live long enough. People say

Embrace your age,

love it,

it’s only a number,

 beauty is ageless,

you’re only as old as you feel,

beauty is skin-deep,

death is natural,

 circle of life,

she lived to a good age,

she’s leaving behind a legacy of love.

Noise.

You want to see your grandmother again in the New Earth, where everything sad has finally come untrue, and you want her to be thirty and strong and sexy with her tiny waist and red lips and shiny black hair. And you want to run to her and grab her up and swing in circles while you both laugh and she raises one arched eyebrow and says, “Hi, darlin’.”

So you’ve decided you’ll wait ‘til then. You’ll watch your own face melt and keep smiling. You may even accept the process of dying after a while. But you don’t have to like it, you remind your reflection. You don’t. In the meantime, you’ll be happy for her, whose glory will soon be more shocking than you can imagine because she’ll bathe in the light of Jesus and he’ll have made her smile forever.

*I said I wasn’t going to blog anymore–or probably not–or not very much, but here I am, posting this blast of grief because of what’s going on in my life right now. So be it. Sigh*

On the Sagging of Time

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Nobody cares to listen to someone gripe about her age.  I find it as boring and depressing as the next person and yet I’m about to do it.  Well, kind of.

My 38th birthday is in a handful of days and, while I’ve always loved birthdays as a category, I’m not ready for this one.

Thirty-eight is no man’s land.  To wit:  I’m not old, but I’ve kissed youth goodbye if my eye bags are an indication of anything (and I suspect they are as I’ve been sleeping through the night for years, thanks).

I believe in Heaven as an actual place.  I believe in the doctrine of future new bodies for those who are reconciled to God.  These are truths I’ve embraced for more than two decades now.  So I shouldn’t fret at the blotchiness of my skin, at the tired expression I habitually wear even when I’m feeling kind-of awesome.  These things are not my forever.

But I do fret.  Not always, but often enough.

I’m stuck in the middle of things–longing for the eternal and, sometimes, for flashes of the vigorous past.  After all, I can still jump on a trampoline with my kids without peeing on myself, but I can’t finish a movie if I start it too late.

This is the way it is for everyone fortunate enough to have her health and a modicum of stability in the in-between years.  I suppose it’s a kind of luxury to feel safe enough that one can afford to fuss about crow’s feet.

In the end, I won’t offer pith or wisdom.  I’ll leave these words suspended, like I am

Prom (A True Story)

He squeezed his forehead, thumb and index finger working his eyes in a vain attempt to chase away the memory of the last few hours. He blinked and his eyes swam with those floating amoebas. He had to race home, change into a jacket and tie, and head to the retirement home. Lillian needed a date. They were having some sort of prom for old people and she was alone.

Please, his mother-in-law had begged him, just do this for me and I will owe you. He had grimaced at his wife as he held the phone away from his ear. She’d shrugged and smiled.

Of course he would be her date. He started the engine of his ten-year-old truck and smelled an acrid waft of burning oil.

Deathbed, he muttered.

Thirty minutes later he pulled into the parking lot of Bright Futures Retirement Village. It looked like a third grader’s mouth, empty spaces gaping between the odd used Honda. He eased into a spot near the front door and got out, straightening his tie. A woman with frosted hair buzzed him in. He smiled at her as it seemed that this was least he could do for someone who’d sat there all day. He turned down a wallpapered hallway until he found the room with the memory box beside the front door. He paused before sticking his head inside the doorway.

The old woman sat in her room, alone, watching the biggest big screen television he’d seen in a long time. He could see a talk show through her hair featuring two tiny Asian girls dancing across a stage. The T.V. audience roared its approval.

Her wheelchair mostly obscured her but he could see that she wore a red formal dress with short sleeves. Underneath it was a white turtleneck. She shifted in her chair.

“Lillian?” he began. “It’s Jim. I’m, uh, eight minutes early for…prom. But we could talk in the meantime or something.”

She turned halfway around to look at him. He thought he saw the beginnings of a smile. Or maybe it was disgust. It was hard to tell. She fluttered one arm in the direction of the television.

“OK,” he ventured. “We can watch Ellen. There’s a corsage for you in the mini-fridge. I’ll get it.”

He turned and opened the fridge. It stood empty except for the gaudy wrist corsage his mother-in-law had placed there hours before. One scratch from it and Lillian would bleed. He bent and fastened the corsage to her paper-skinned wrist.

The requisite eight minutes passed and it was time for pictures. The two of them would pose and smile as if all of this were real. It would be like high school, except for the thousand years represented in this place. He cleared his throat.

“Lillian, I think it’s time for us to go find the others. Could you show me where to go? I don’t know my way around here.”

She nodded. He stood up and pushed her out into the hall with one hand, pulling the door closed with the other. He said something, he didn’t know what. She answered his questions, stammering over syllables. He did not help her with words. Something warned him not to.

At the end of the hall they reached a clog of elderly people decked out in their finest suits and floral dresses. They waited in a worn-out snake of a queue for the photographer to call out their number. He parked Lillian’s chair at the end of the line. A plump, middle-aged lady approached them, a piece of hard candy in her mouth.

“Honey, you need to take a number. Here,” she said, handing him a plastic card. “You’re number 27.”

“What number are they on now?” he asked.

“Thirteen.”

His eyes fell on the line of wrinkled women, their skin triple creased and soft. He could see gravity calling them back to the earth, one inch of flesh at a time. They stood swaying slightly, some with sticks. They were desiccated, water and seeds long since gone. They needed those sticks to die standing up.

“Number twenty-seven, please!” a shrill voice finally announced from the front of the line.

“That’s us, Lillian,” he said.

He wheeled her chair over the short pile carpet to where a rickety, white arch stood. One tap of the wheelchair and it might collapse on them. He arranged her chair under the bower and positioned himself behind her, squatting so that his head rested on her shoulder. He wondered for a second if she’d allow this. She was not a woman to be touched. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her smile. The photograph would be ridiculous, the kind that gets sent around the Internet. He didn’t care. The smile had made him feel sad all of a sudden. Sad and foolish.

Dinner began with salad, an iceberg lettuce wedge underneath three pastel tomatoes, all of it drowned in sweet vinaigrette. He looked over at his elderly date. She stabbed at a tomato with her good arm. The kitchen staff whisked the salads away in record time, replacing them with the main course, a piece of beef in colorless gravy. It was chewy but harmless enough. He watched Lillian nibble at her baked potato. From time to time she looked up at him with faded eyes. He tried to remember to smile at her without nodding, but he realized too late that he’d done it again. Nodded as if she’d asked him a question. In a way, she had.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to finish up dinner. It’s 5:30 and our live entertainment will be arriving soon in the foyer. We hope you’ve enjoyed your special meal with your loved ones,” the director intoned.

At a nearby table a lady with an imaginary lover smiled, her face radiant. Jim and Lillian moved to the main room where people were already gathering. A young man staggered into the foyer dragging two turntables, a silver laptop, and an oversized speaker. He wore baggy jeans and a backward baseball cap. As he passed by the growing audience he flashed a toothy smile. Jim felt disaster looming but, to his relief, when the deejay played the first song Frank Sinatra’s lovesick voice filled the room. The old people began to relax and drum their fingers on their armrests. Lillian mouthed the words to songs from a different life.

A few people swayed, eyes closed, transported to a time when legs were able and arms were willing. Lillian couldn’t get up, so he tried to sing along with her to let her know that he understood. A woman in the center of the room had positioned herself under an imaginary spotlight and moved back and forth, hands inches from her walker. She jerked from one pose to the next.  Without warning she moved away from her walker, her arms floating on their own. For a brief moment she was young. Then everyone’s fear; knees buckling, she sank to the floor, legs in cheerleading formation. Ladies in uniforms rushed to her, creating a human wall.

After a moment of confusion, they parted and Jim could see the fallen woman standing again, smiling feebly. No broken hip, but it was too late. The lighthearted mood in the room had passed. The crowd murmured and began to thin and Jim asked Lillian if she’d like to go back to her room. She nodded and he wondered what he’d say when they arrived at her door.

He didn’t have much time to think. The chair’s wheels protested as he scooted them over the carpet in her living room. He positioned her in the same spot he’d found her hours before and adjusted the volume on the television. He could see her face growing older, harder. Prom was over.  He bent and kissed her cheek. Her skin felt soft on his lips.

“I had a great time,” he said. He surprised himself by meaning it. “Is there anything I can get you before I go?”

Her eyes flicked to his for a moment and held them. He thought he could see her face as it had been.

“No. Nothing. I had a great time, too.”

It was ten minutes until 7:00 and he had to get home. He touched her shoulder lightly.

“Ok, then. Bye, Lillian.”

He walked out the room and closed the door behind him.

(names have been changed)