Who Will Pluck My Chin Hairs?


My mom and I once made a solemn vow: If either of us is ever in a coma, we promise to pluck one another’s chin hairs. My petite, five-foot-tall mom once grew out a single hair to see how long it would get. The coarse black hair spiraled below her chin until my brother and I begged her to pull it out. I remember my maternal grandmother, her mind already whisked away by Alzheimer’s, grabbing tweezers and yanking the hairs on her chin, stretching the loose skin down into a V before the hair plucked out, the skin springing, then settling into a vacant sag.

Flipping through rows of greeting cards, I’ve always been annoyed by the cards bemoaning another birthday, making fun of old age and being “over the hill,” or illustrating wrinkly cartoon characters croaking over crass sex jokes. I could never relate. But now that my skin folds into a fan around my eyes, lines curve around the sides of my mouth, and I’m doing battle plucking my own chin hairs, I’m starting to get the joke.

I recently asked my mom about her availability for some dates ten months from now. “Assuming we’re still alive, we should be here,” she responded. Bizarre, I thought. As a forty-year-old, it’s not a text message I’d ever send. I always assume I’ll be alive ten months from now. But as 65- and 70-year-olds, perhaps my parents feel more like they are cherishing the final chapters of what, fortunately, has been a particularly good book—or at least one with plenty of plot twists. Perhaps they, too, are cognizant of this new coming of age. There’s even less illusion of a guaranteed tomorrow.

Some friends my age have been diagnosed with cancer and I scroll through their social media, both horrified and transfixed. They live the life you live when you may be dying—taking family trips to Hawaii and Disney World, strolling along the beach at sunset and savoring the sacred, heart-wrecking, ordinary moments. They take professional family pictures.

I find out from Facebook that one friend in his early thirties died of cancer, his page still eerily active. I had a crush on him once and for a second I think about what my life would be if I had been his wife, the mother to his children, now a widow at age forty.

I can’t contemplate my mortality (or that of my loved ones) too long before I feel like I’m drowning. But holding my breath and swimming froggy-style underwater reminds me how to swim—and appreciate all the oxygen—above water.

My kids often speculate about heaven and resurrection. Will we have the same bodies? Will we come back as infants, as children, as adults, as we were when we died, or as our best age? Do poodles come back to life, too? If not, why not? What’s a soul? Will heaven look like earth or is earth supposed to look like heaven?

At forty, I still feel like I’m in the middle of my story.

For my son, a year is one-sixth of his entire life, so anticipated events take for-ev-er. Time accelerates for my father. One year is one-seventieth of his life, a quick blip on the video game screen.

My fortieth birthday this year felt like the hinge in the door. But was the door closing or opening? The door felt most open when life’s neon lights blinked with possibilities: What to study? Where to work? Who to marry? When to have kids? How many kids? Where to wiggle our roots in the ground and make a place home?

At this age, it feels like there’s less to strive for and look forward to. I’ve always had the next thing ahead, but now that I’ve hopped most milestones and “firsts,” my feet are planted almost too-firmly on the bank across the river I’ve been leaping my entire life. It’s all behind me now.

Or is it?

Perhaps the door is widening. Whereas my first forty years were characterized by seeking, striving, moving, proving, and birthing babies and even a book into the world, perhaps this next season will be one where all those planted seeds can finally flourish. Instead of seeing forty as an end, what if we saw it as a beginning? Instead of the agony and angst of our younger years, what if we cultivated wonder and gratitude? Instead of worry and fear, what if we focused on contentment and courage?

I used to beg God to guide me and make my “next steps” clear. The assumption was one of forward motion. Staying still never seemed like an option. But what if, instead of “next steps,” I prayed for bravery, open eyes, and deep love for the people right where I am? If I do any stepping, what if it is out of self-absorption and into the mysticism and exuberant love of God?

Turning forty can propel us into introspection: Where have we come from and where are we going? What have we accomplished and what more will we do? (Does that really matter after all?) What kind of legacy will we leave behind? What tragedies, disappointments, failures, and follies lie ahead? And what delights? What kinds of adults will our children become? Will we age well or be mean old hags who curse out the nurses at the retirement home? Will we put up a fight if our minds slide into Alzheimer’s like my grandmother’s once did and insist on plucking our own chin hairs? I have no idea.

But I have today.

And today, death feels like fantasy. Perhaps in heaven we’ll have the feeling of riding the edge of dream world and reality—What was it again? Who was I with and what were we doing? I imagine myself on the brink of recalling that life I once lived, like the phantom of a dream that drifts away when you wake. But today is not that day. Today, forty feels like an awakening.