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Every Line Will Show
A personal essay by Emily Dagostino about aging, hair, and invisibility.
At the outset of that awkward passage from child to post-child, other kids used to make fun of this hair, when it began to frizz up and kink out. On the other side of the passage, more than a decade later, a teacher told me I was a wild garden, and I tried to believe her. I let the hair I’d worn shorn for most of college grow; I let it go.
By the time I was first pregnant, we’d finally made peace, the hair I’d gone to war against for decades. Pregnancy hormones softened the texture in my 30s, and I never got deep enough into pregnancies three or four to find out what would have happened to my hair. Those babies’ hearts never had a chance to beat. Months after my miscarriages, after being swiped and stuck more times than I could count, Dr. Sipe told me that judging by my hormone levels he’d have guessed I was 10 years older than I was.
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A marvel and a tragedy, how such a man could hold such a position of power over so many women’s bodies.
The latest sign of this new perimenopausal passage I’m in: My hair coarsening, blanching, falling out. I comb my fingers through it, gently twine around my fingertips these wiry clumps the texture of steel wool. They form tiny balls that I place on side tables around my house and eventually dispose of, unobserved by the three people I live with.
Just because my husband and kids don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening right here before their eyes, this change I’m going through, surrounded by them and simultaneously alone.
We tell ourselves stories to get through life. In some of them, including those told by some of the women I know, perimenopause and menopause sound akin to the River Styx. A terrifying, dangerous passage connecting a land of plenty to a land of no return. From fertility to infertility and frailty, from pleasure to pain. Arthritic joints. Painful intercourse. Low libido. Dryness. Desolation. Not a fiery inferno, my future, then, but a brittle, barren wasteland?
I don’t think so. If midlife is the start of a sort of diminuendo, it is also a crescendo and a coda: a going forward and a turning back.
My mom always wore her hair close to her scalp. It has a curl to it, and a more forgiving texture than mine, though she said when she was a kid, they used to call her “porcupine head.” At some point on her midlife passage, when she was not much older than I am now, she started to let the color go from her hair, and a dazzling white, like snow under moonlight, shone beneath.
Now, at age 74, my mom recently told me she feels like she’s “already invisible,” moving through the world unobserved and feeling as if she’s treated by society like she has nothing left to offer. This woman, who for decades taught children how to express themselves and be in this world by exploring their ability to create, this woman who is the mother of four and grandmother of eight, feels unseen and unwanted by the world. And yet, her basement is filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of original watercolor and oil paintings. They are landscapes and portraits. They are places she’s been and people she’s seen there.
“Leave your mark,” she tells me.
Her paintings are hers: her creations, beautiful and strong. So are we.
She is not invisible to me. I follow where she leads, and I’m not afraid to go forward or to turn back.
I’m taking this midlife passage I’m in one step (and one wiry clump) at a time. I won’t alter my hair or skin with chemicals or toxins. I won’t hide from what comes next. I am a living, breathing portrait, and I want every line to show. They may speak of the unseen losses I carry in my body, but they also crow of the joy I have known and the laughter I have shared.
I am changing, and I am aging, and I’m old enough, finally, to know that I can make something of any loss this life throws at me.
Emily Dagostino is a writer, daughter, mother, and wife living in Oak Park, Illinois. She was recently selected as a winner of the Chicago Sun-Times "Finding Chicago's Next Voices" contest. She loves to dance, read and play the clarinet.