Learning to accept the indignities of aging with dignity.
As I place both feet squarely in middle age, I find myself looking at “age defying” cosmetic measures with more tolerant eyes, albeit increasingly blurry ones without my reading glasses. I used to shake my head at the guy down the street with hair plugs, and lament his need to cling to youth. That, I thought, would never be me.
But when I catch myself actually reading the label on my wife’s eye cream like an alcoholic sipping NyQuil with the bathroom door locked, I look to the man who has become my model for aging gracefully: Cary Grant, a man unknown to my younger friends and certainly from a time before my generation. But my mother adored him and I spent many hours as a child, sitting next to her on the couch, watching him glide across the screen in flickering black and white with the relaxed elegance of an acrobat. He was a man “of a certain age,” and he couldn’t care less.
By the time he made Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House in 1948, he was roughly my age now. I won’t deny he looked better than I do. He was still, well, Cary Grant. But while blessed with genetic fortitude, Grant did little to hide his age as time wore on. His hair went from black to grey to white. He wore his eyeglasses–black, thick-rimmed frames you could see from halfway down Rodeo drive–without embarrassment. And he looked fantastic.
Grant had a simple formula. His hair was grey but always groomed. He didn’t work out fanatically, but he kept in shape. His suits were cut with just enough waist to slim his line and took into account his known shortcomings. His head was too large for his body, causing his tailors at Kilgour, French & Stanbury to add just enough shoulder to compensate. Otherwise, his suits were simple, elegant, and unadorned. The last thing you noticed was his age. You noticed him.
The litany of diagnoses my doctors have handed me since turning 40, however, have required me to fill my Netflix queue with every film Grant ever made for reassurance. And it hasn’t helped: kidney stones, some thyroid condition I still can’t pronounce or spell, gout, deteriorating eyesight, borderline hypertension and sleep apnea to round off the list. I had my grandfather’s rap sheet and could sense my young self turning his head slowly in sympathy the way one looks at a dog everyone knows has to be put down but nobody wants to say it.
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing pauses during sleep, sometimes as high as one hundred times in a single night. Apart from preventing restorative sleep, it greatly increases the chances of stroke, heart attack, weight problems, and a host of other issues you don’t want. It often goes undiagnosed and is not limited to a particular gender or body type. My doctor has an apnea patient who is a petite 9-year old girl, despite the disorder’s reputation as a middle-aged man’s disease.
My power to deny the obvious is documented among those I know, but even I had to admit something was wrong. Frightening memory loss had become a daily occurrence along with an almost permanent state of exhaustion, irritability, the window-shaking snoring, and morning migraines that had me popping Excedrin like candy. It was time to get tested.
In an anonymous industrial park, I pulled up to the “sleep center” as the sun went down. The staff guided me to my room rigged for monitored sleep. Medical electrodes were placed on my entire body, from my scalp down to my legs, each connected to a colored wire. In the final, crowning becoming Darth Vader moment, they lowered the plastic mask over my nose and mouth, the sound of hissing air growing louder. The long tube attached to the mask drew air from the Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure machine, or “CPAP.” Gently pushing air into my throat and lungs, the CPAP kept my air passages open to allow uninterrupted sleep for the first time in years.
In the morning, I looked like an astronaut waking from an all-night drunken bender, wires and blinking lights twisted with bedsheets and blankets. But on this day, something was different. It was 5 AM, my normal waking time. At least, I normally set my alarm for 5 AM, knowing it would take at least 30 minutes to even lift my groggy head off the pillow, desperate to return to unconsciousness for one more futile attempt at rest.
But on this day, I sat up like a loaded spring. The staff handed me a survey to complete, which I did with crisp efficiency. I drove home, calculating my mileage while wondering why the trees, the sky, the entire visual canvas in front of me was so colorful all of a sudden. At home I vacuumed the house and went for a light jog. This, I discovered, was the normal state of alertness other humans could expect, indeed already enjoyed, and I’d never known it. My normal disposition of a walking coma, my doctor tells me, was in fact not natural or healthy. It was a whole new world and I was the only one who didn’t know he lived in it.
It was a relief to know my ailment was treatable but I soon realized it came with a cost, at least to my ego. I admit, I was already feeling slightly less the man I was even before this development. Just being in my 40s had seen to that. Recovery from injuries took longer and I couldn’t really blame poor lighting for the creases that had begun to appear on my face in photos. They were, in fact, actual creases. That is to say, wrinkles.
And while I can look away from photos, I can’t ignore the electrically powered paraphernalia waiting by my bedside every night. It does not tolerate denial. And in case you’ve already wondered, tubes, masks, and electrical wires do not a romantic evening make, unless you’ve got very specific tastes indeed. My wife still can’t resist the urge to cry “Dive! Dive! Dive!” as I put on my mask and switch off the light.
It’s one thing to take a daily pill for some ailment and put it out of your mind while continuing your adolescent lifestyle. But when your treatment actually tethers you to your bed, you can’t help but feel… diminished. This is a key ingredient to the cliché but palpably real mid-life crisis rearing its head. If I was a respected member of a medieval warrior tribe, some younger man seeking to replace me would be running a sharpening stone along the length of his sword right about now as he prepared to take my place, smelling weakness.
But I’m not in a medieval village and the truth is, despite the ridiculous-looking headgear I now wear to bed, tubes and wires all, I have never felt better. Do I look 44? You bet I do. That’s because I am 44. Do 19-year old girls look at me differently now? They do indeed, and the reason is quite simple: I am different now.
Perhaps my growing comfort with imperfection is a symptom of too much oxygen coursing through my brain now that I enter REM sleep for more than ten minutes a night. But as I watch Mr. Grant seduce Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, now alone on the couch and very much missing my recently departed mother, I realize that I have no claim to self-pity.
My crow’s feet and greying hair speak of a thousand experiences I could only earn by logging the hours: the earthquake that scared me to within an inch of my life back in 1999, a healthy marriage, an annual tradition of hiking the White Mountains every Halloween with my childhood friends, a tradition that is now in its 28th year. Without these experiences, my 20s and 30s would be a blank page looking for a story and otherwise wasted, frankly. I would not go back.
In the end, it really does all go back to Cary Grant, at least for me. Comb your hair, get a well-cut suit, take care of yourself. Relax. You’ll look better doing that at middle age then you ever did in the youth our society so desperately idolizes.
And when that 22-year old in the next cubicle learns he needs to get fitted for his own apnea mask, likely sooner than he ever thought, you will give him the confidence of seasoned experience. Embrace your new role.
“Be tolerant and helpful to the other fellow,” Cary Grant once said of dressing well and life in general. “He is yourself yesterday.”