I’ve always had a baby face. Even with the beard, I’m usually assumed to be far younger than I am. So imagine my surprise when I gazed lovingly at my wife, only to find her staring not into my eyes, but at an indeterminate area above my eyebrows: the clinching evidence that I really am as old as my birth certificate suggests. Mariacristina had discovered my wrinkles.
In no time at all, she was digging among her bathroom products to give me free samplers of expensive skin cream that claimed to reverse the ageing process, iron out those unwanted contours and perform all sorts of terribly scientific-sounding wonders that would transform my face. She was definitely doing me a favour, though: after a lifetime of neglect, it’s about time I started looking after my skin. And then she smiled as she identified what she insists was a white hair (not an easy job in a blonde mop). I grinned, broadly.
I love my wrinkles and white hairs. I love her ‘fine lines’, whose appearance she’s rather determined to slow. I love the fact that we’re getting older. The fact that we are doing so together fills me with more joy than one man could ever deserve.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t have wrinkles or white hair when I was 23 and first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. At that point, the odds were in favour of my never getting anywhere near wrinkles and white hair.
Is no hair better than grey hair?
It wasn’t long before I had no hair at all as the chemotherapy and an unplanned visit to the intensive care unit shocked my follicles into surrender. My body’s weak immune system had collapsed in the face of an e.coli bug, taking many of my vital functions with it. Somehow I had pulled through, and that seemed too miraculous already to even contemplate a time when my hair would grow back, let alone have a chance to turn white.
It did grow back, though – thick and wavy, as it hadn’t been since I was a baby – and staying alive long enough for that was already enough to celebrate. Treatment continued and eventually came to an end. I set myself to enjoy being a young man while I could; growing old could only ever be an unexpected bonus.
My skin had almost certainly started looking a bit more worn when I relapsed at the age of 31. But what a privilege to have had the time in those intervening years to brown my body in the sun; to furrow my brow a million and one times in tiny and huge decisions every day; and to dehydrate my skin because I was too busy having fun to remember to drink enough water.
Running out of wrinkling time
My chances of ever becoming a silver fox were only getting worse, though. When first-line treatment failed to get me into remission, it was even more likely that any wrinkles and white hairs I had accumulated by then would be my last. I knew I’d never be wrinkly and white-haired if I didn’t live long enough.
And then… the early stages of a clinical trial unexpectedly knocked out the leukaemia. My transplant loomed: a chance of a bonus life; a chance to get old – or if not old, then older than I was. What a privilege, a joy and a relief it could be to get old enough to have wrinkles and white hair! I always loved the romantic notion that “every wrinkle tells a story” – but now I know it’s true.
My donor Tim’s stem cells successfully engrafted and started creating new bone marrow – and suddenly I was counting from zero again: the first day of my extra chance of life. I still had my baby face, but now I had a baby immune system, too. I may look young for a 35-year-old, but I look pretty old for a four-year-old, as I celebrate both birthdays with all the joy and loved ones I can muster.
One friend who used to anticipate her birthday at least eleven months ahead seems to have lost her enthusiasm for the milestone as the candles on the cake become more numerous. Yet every birthday is a triumph that deserves celebration – whoever you are. I have known too many friends and family who will never get wrinkles or white hair to not embrace the accumulating joy of getting old.
It’s rare to see a woman with white hair in southern Italy. Knowing some spectacularly elegant white-haired women, I had to ask why – in a culture where looking good comes so naturally – these Italians almost invariably decide to dye their hair at the first hint of grey or white. “We don’t want to look old,” I was told.
Yet how much wisdom, how many stories, how much love and experience and tragedy and joy and, above all, life has earned that spectacular privilege of reaching the natural milestone of your hair turning white?
And what better reason is there to celebrate than being alive?