Gray Matter

Most of them are spread out evenly throughout a sea of auburn-brown.  Every once in a while, however, a few will spring up off the surface.  They look like little, silver bamboo shoots, defying gravity as they spin up toward the sky.  These feisty creatures are the ones that catch my attention.  They refuse to be like the rest of their kind.  Most of them are tame, content to blend in, behave, never demanding a second glance.  The majority are not interested in a beaches-of-Normandy type of attack.  They are satisfied with a death-by-a-thousand-papers-cuts approach.

So I stare at the mirror, negotiating with the class clowns, the wild ones who won’t be silenced.  I know they are in the midst of a takeover, one I cannot stop. It’s inevitable because, after all, I am getting older.   But I have ammunition.  For eight bucks and an hour’s time I can have any range of hair colors from the lightest of blondes to the blackest of blacks.  On the other hand I can go all Northrop Grumman on my gray hair and get one of the best colorists around to do a base color, high lights, and low lights for around $140… me a completely natural look.

But here’s the secret.  I kind of like my gray hair.  I know, I know.  That sentiment is utterly crazy in our youth-obsessed culture.  It’s akin to saying I’d rather make it first to the K&W Cafeteria line with my walker than finish first in the New York City Marathon.  But that’s not me.  I’m not some weird octogenarian apologist.  I want to act young, feel young, and live young.  I’m just not convinced my time is well-spent trying to convince everyone else that I actually am young.


Author’s note: this is not me. This image is provided solely for the purpose of illustrating what my hair will probably look like in 20 years. That would be great if I could have his intelligence.

So what am I going to do?  From four feet away no one would know I have gray hair.  It’s only when you get close that you see them here and there.  Of course when I look in the mirror I can see…, wait a minute!  Everything is blurry!  By the time I back up enough for my eyes to focus properly I can’t see any gray hair at all.


I have decided that I am not going to age gracefully but graciously.   I believe my eyes and my hair combine to tell the story of life on the brink of something precious.  Because of unspeakable Grace showered down on me I pray daily for further grace to be imputed into my heart.  As much as those gray hairs emanate from my scalp, I want my eyes to continue to get blurry to the faults in others as I am all too keenly aware of my own.  I want a heart emanating with grace.

images (1)

Author’s note: Not me either, but at least I got the sex/gender correct this time. This image is provided solely for the purpose of wondering out loud if the photographer hired a fingernail model for this job or if the person with the gray hair also happened to have a great manicure.

Aging graciously is welcoming each fresh gray hair onto this planet of my head.  Each one is a testament to an experience, a trial, a test I’ve been through and ended up on the other side smiling. And hopefully packing just a tiny bit more wisdom.  Gray hair number 322, welcome!   You were born the day we rushed our son to the emergency room after a horrible scooter jumping another scooter accident.  Gray hair number 67, the one over my left ear, welcome!  You were born as I sat crying with my friend over the struggles in her marriage.   Hello, two-foot area in front of my face!  I can no longer see you clearly, but it’s all good.  It just so happens I’m not taking it so personally when an ornery neighbor is a little short with me.  After all, I’ve behaved much more atrociously.  Hello, two-and-a-half-foot area in front of my face.  Now I can no longer see you clearly either, but that’s cool.  It’s helping me see mankind at a comfortable distance knowing we all have the same basic problem.

I am officially declaring this mop of mostly brown hair a sanctuary for gray.   Feel free to live here, silver bamboo shoots.

And for friends and strangers alike, feel free to step into the blurry zone around me.   We work so industriously for decades to remove the specks from our neighbors’ eyes.  Maybe it’s the realization that we’ve been carrying logs in our own eyes for so long that causes our vision to blur in the end.

Days Fly By

photo (2)He was just a boy when I met him.  He was arranging a basketball game with Tom, a friend of his who tried to introduce us.  He turned his head my way for a  millisecond and gave a slight backward tilt.  Today that head movement would be accompanied with a “wassup”, but I didn’t receive even that amount of consideration.  It was what I calculated to be the rudest snub a human being could give.  He turned back to our mutual friend and continued to make plans for meeting on the courts in front of Cobb Dorm.

The next day–my third day at UNC–was the first day of classes for the fall semester of 1987.  I had Astronomy 31 with Shapiro, a class I would often forego in lieu of Monty Python videos in the undergrad library.

My dear children, please disregard that last sentence.

Of the 400 people in attendance that day it struck me as a conspiracy from the universe that he was in my first college-level class.

Time passed.

“Patrick, have you guys ever met?”   I wasn’t a math major, but according to my abacus this question was repeated at least five times over a two-year period.  The answer was always the same.   “No, I don’t believe we’ve ever met,” he would say with a sweet, Eastern North Carolina voice.  His was an accent only people from Kinston have.  By the third or fourth introduction and with his chronic [selective?] amnesia, I began to avoid him whenever possible.  I’m not Miss America, but am I really that forgettable?

Days marched on.

Upon learning that he would be at a friend’s room in Stacy one night–a night that I planned to visit–I admired my own maturity as evidenced by my determination to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps he had a lot on his mind when we were introduced all those times.  Maybe he was shy.   Or, just maybe, if I had attended astronomy class more often I would have learned I’m not the center of the universe, and therefore I should not expect him to automatically put me at the center of his universe just because we happened to meet a few times.

“Patrick, have you guys ever met?”  This time it stuck.

The year was 1991, and  I left UNC with a husband from the side of the state with inferior BBQ and high-quality men.

Years flew by.

Our three beautiful children have often asked about and heard the story of the five introductions and two marriage proposals that lead to their eventual existence.  Their dad has explained he never meant to snub me.  He was just really interested in playing hoops, and here was this female being introduced to him who seemed to have an attitude.

Our first child decided to forego UNC for the Ivy League, but as a sports fan she will always be a Tarheel.   More importantly, perhaps, she will always hate Duke.  The second child went with his love of cooking and attends a culinary school.  The third one, well, he wants to be a sports journalist.  So UNC may see one of our children after all.

We recently had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time in Chapel Hill.  We weren’t there for a big tailgate party or a conference, a tour to let our kids check out UNC, or even a continuing ed class.  My husband, the boy from Kinston, experienced some chest pains for several days and decided to drive himself over to the emergency room at UNC on a Saturday afternoon.  It would be two weeks before he would make it back home.

The heart catheterization revealed blockages of 90, 70, and 70 percent.

The staff got to know him well over that two-week period.  Everyone knew who he was, what he did, and that he needed to get out of this place as soon as possible because he had places to be and things to do.  Type-A much?

In the days before the surgery it was a waiting game.  We would eat dinner, chat, read, lie in the hospital bed together and watch football or a favorite show, holding hands as the minutes sped past.  Each night I had to go back home, only 30 minutes away.  Our third child is still dependent on mom’s taxi service to get him to and from school and practices or games.

Surgery was set for September 27th, 2013.  My husband’s father had passed away 20 years before, almost to the day, on September 28th, 1993.

The normal four to five hours of triple bypass surgery was extended to eight hours in my husband’s case due to him having had open-heart surgery as a ten year-old.  Friends sat with me in the waiting room.  Both sons stayed out of school to be there.   Our daughter kept in constant contact over the phone.

At 4:30 p.m. Dr. Stansfield came to speak with me, with all of us.  His left hand held onto the back of a chair in the waiting room, propping up the weight of his body as he gave us the good news about the surgery.  His right hand rested on his back.  I heard his words, but I was struck with an overwhelming sense of gratitude that this man (a few years younger than my husband and me) had spent himself on behalf of a man he didn’t even know.  The doctor couldn’t possibly understand that my husband meant the world to the people waiting for news in that room and on the phone and via e-mail, but his aching back, tired eyes, and recently bloody hands were evidence of his skill, his perseverance, his determination, his willingness to do whatever it took to save the life of my husband.

The hours, minutes, and seconds in the cardiothoracic ICU are intense, to put it mildly.  I don’t know if any of us were prepared for the shock that comes from seeing the rock of our family so helpless and vulnerable and in such pain.  What had been a game of waiting now became a game of dealing with moment by moment pain, thirst, discomfort, and incessant staring at the monitors for every fluctuation of his heart rate, his oxygen levels, and his blood pressure.

The names run together, the nurses in CTICU.  Daniel, Paul, Stacey.  They are all credits to their profession.  Without hyperbole, they’re all a credit to humanity, the best of what any of us can hope to be:  professional, knowledgeable, effective, and, most importantly, compassionate.

The moments ticked on.  The intense pain turned into intense discomfort.  The insatiable thirst became a strong desire for something to drink.  The sudden spikes in blood pressure became rhythmical beats in a soundtrack of healing.

He was upgraded to a step-down unit.  The third floor of Anderson then the fourth floor of Anderson and finally the sixth floor of Anderson.  So many nurses, nurses’ assistants, and simply wonderful individuals came across our path during those two weeks:  Amy, Chris (a neighbor), Micah from MICU, Christal from pre-surgery.  We even met the girl we’re fairly certain that our oldest son should marry:  Anna on Anderson, fourth floor,  a beautiful girl inside and out.

No matter what time I got to the hospital–7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m.–when it was time to leave at 9:00 or 10:00 or 11:00 at night it felt as though I had just arrived.  The time passed so fast.   At home there was an empty pillow on the side of the bed where my husband was supposed to be.  His heart was healing behind a chest cavity split wide open and sewn back together.  My heart was at the hospital.

I opted for the sofa each night.

Nurses, doctors, P.A.s, and administrative staff constantly filled his room, no matter what floor he was moved to.  I was struck at how friendly everyone was and how they seemed to genuinely care about my husband and look at him holistically.  He was not just a package of symptoms that could be cured and sent off with this medicine, that surgery, and this therapy.  They were interested in his occupation, his hobbies, his spiritual perspectives, his family, and of course his health.

As an aside, somebody really needs to check into a “Dr. Brand”.  This was a man I saw almost every day of the whole ordeal.  Since no one could possibly keep the hours he keeps and continue functioning, I have deduced he is some sort of humanoid robot or simply someone living at the hospital rent-free and posing as a doctor.

We are back at home now, 30 minutes down the road from Chapel Hill with (no offense to UNC) no desire to come back any time soon.  My husband is healing with each passing day.

And each one has passed so quickly.

He has been back to work for several weeks, and he begins driving this week at the 30-day post-surgery mark.  His 46th birthday was yesterday.  I’m so thankful for the days I now have with him in the future.  Dr. Stansfield corrected a major problem that would have, no doubt, taken him away from me prematurely.

In 2013 I left UNC with a husband from the side of the state with inferior BBQ and high-quality men.

And I know the days will fly by.