“Mommy, you look old,” he says when I rouse myself from sleep. I look at myself in the mirror to confirm the truth of my son’s statement. He is right. The lines under my eyes and dark spots on my cheeks cannot be concealed. I tell him, “this is what happens” knowing that for him aging seems far away and impossible. He has only an inkling of change. He is at the cusp of puberty. The hair above his lip has come in as a dim shadow on his still-boyish face and a few small pimples appear more regularly around his nose. But I say nothing. I know how self-conscious a teenage boy can be. I tell him only, “wear deodorant every day.”
But this time (yes, not the first time), when he tells me that I look old and haggard, I feel a combination of hurt, and recognition. I cannot deny it. The white in my hair, eyebrows and, yes this more persistent (postmenopausal) mustache, are an irritating reminder that no amount of plucking and dying will hide this (I just can’t stay ahead of the maintenance required to look young.) I’m old compared to him, older than I used to be, getting older and getting old. It is not simple vanity, it is also a desire to postpone the inevitable; old age, yes, but also death. I’ve told him many times, I would like to live forever, to watch him become a man, and then an old man, but I can’t, so I tell him, “you get this instead”: an old mother with gray hair, white hairs, and lines around her eyes that insist upon being seen. I know he sees me. All of me. But I know watching a parent age through a kid’s eyes must be almost as disconcerting as watching oneself age.
As we begin to brush our teeth, I tell Niko about my father who, when I was 12, used to disappear to the bathroom, and emerge with a jet-black mustache. Baba was bald, but exceedingly handsome, with large brown eyebrows and dark, penetrating eyes. Although his handsomeness never left him, he started in his early fifties to occasionally dye his mustache, his sideburns and the circle of hair around his head. This effort was ostensibly to look “younger” for job prospects (after consulting overseas for years, he endured a stretch of unemployment after a severe broken leg that kept him out of the job market for nearly a year), but we knew it was much bigger than that. And, whenever we saw him come out the bathroom with that jet-black mustache that sat atop his lip like a small mouse, we tried to suppress our giggles, but giggled anyway. Niko giggles too when he imagines his grandfather, whom he barely remembers as scruffy white-haired old man, with ink-black hair. As children, my brothers and I thought Baba looked funny; that his dyed mustache and hair made him look like someone else, someone slightly impostor-ish. We were relieved when the too-dark color faded and his softly graying hair replaced it. I remember seeing it as a lessening omnipotence, a vulnerability that revealed itself when the blackness finally diminished. As I grew older, and grew into becoming a mature woman myself, it comforted me more to see his gray hair become whiter.
I tell my son, “one day you’ll stand in front of the mirror with your child too, and he or she will tell you, ‘you look old.”” He smiles, then says, “No I won’t. I’m never going to get old.” I cringe at this thought. We lost our older son, Kyle, five years ago at age 16 in a fatal car accident. The epitaph on his headstone, “Forever Young,” is etched in tall, elegant letters in the grooves of the polished granite and accented by gold-leaf paint; it was and is one of my husband’s favorite Bob Dylan songs. It is a song I used to love as well, one of the songs played at our wedding, but about which I now have deeply mixed feelings. It is a too-poignant song. A song, I want never to be true for Niko. I want him to grow up, have children, grow old, so I know his life will continue, that my life will continue in him. I want him to remember the irony of a moment when he goes into the bathroom and puts black dye on his hair and maybe even giggles at himself. And then one day feels defeated by this thing called aging. I want him to try, in his own way, to preserve something of the youthful self he feels inside of himself even when the body, the body betrays. I want him to fight and love old age, and fight it with a love of his life, the way I fight for my own.