My chin looks like it’s been dipped in powder. I wipe the back of my hand across my chin and cheeks just to make sure. No powder falls onto the sink. Yeah. Those white hairs are really sprouting out of my face.
Then I run my palm along the top of my head and sigh, for the male pattern baldness is expanding. I’d never minded being bald in the past — I started shaving my head at age fifteen — because after I ran the blade across my scalp my hairline was always intact. Today, my hairline is interrupted by shiny brown skin at the top, while the rest of my head is framed by a fading black shadow. The contrast between sections of my head has become more pronounced in photos. I know that other people see it too.
My vision begins to blur as I take a few steps back. I place my hands on my stomach and squeeze until both of my hands are full of myself. I glance down at my fingers and groan as sections of my stomach squelch through the spaces in between them. I whisper: “Oh my god. When the fuck did this all happen?”
I edge forward until my nose is hovering inches from the mirror. “Look at your cheeks old man,” I say. “They are so full.” As I retreat from the mirror, I am filled with a new purpose: “I’m going to jog three times around that park, or until I am completely out of breath and wheezing.”
It is 7:00 am, or what I still consider to be the early morning. I believe this is the best time to run during summer. Why? The sun is out, but it’s still relatively cool outside, and there are not as many people occupying the trail.
The makeshift rope snapped seven years ago. I fell three stories and shattered my right kneecap into pieces, a truly catastrophic injury, as there had been mutterings about a possible amputation. The doctors went in to put the knee back together , but it would never be the same again. Flexion in the right knee is about half of what it is in the left. The joint has gotten less flexible as the years have passed, especially after multiple hours of inactivity — this is especially true after I’ve awoken from a long sleep. My attempts at a proper quadriceps stretch with my right leg prove to be futile.
Distance markers have been painted on the trail, and I’m already sucking wind at the quarter mile mark. I’m not tired enough to stop. At least not yet. I’d made myself a promise before I arrived at the park this morning. Three miles. I was going to cover at least three miles — the approximate point of complete exhaustion — this morning or I was going to collapse trying.
As I run I recall the long ago past. I used to be a state qualifier in track and field near the end of the previous century. So I buck up and breathe in deep, loosen my arm swing, and extend the length of my stride. I feel better.
I’m at about eight hundred meters into my run when two young women veer onto my path. I’ve still got enough gas in the tank to gauge the distance between the young women and myself: about forty meters. Once again, my mind reverts back to the time when I was a track athlete at the local high school. I would always lag behind my competitors until about halfway through the race, when I would accelerate to pass unfortunate foes on the left and right of me.
I can do it.
A few hundred meters pass.
No I can’t. I’m carrying to much weight up top and my legs have lost the power necessary to churn the way I want them to. Legs feel heavy and tight, and I have not made up any ground. So, I surrender. Let…those…two… young… women… forge… ahead. I’m just going to concentrate on finishing the run.
I decelerate until I’m trudging forward at a cadence that I can manage, as I’ve settled into about a ten-minute mile. Not a quick pace by any means, but at least I’m not walking. Walking would be failing.
Half an hour after starting my run, I’m doubled over, drenched in sweat, and desperate for air. Pulse is pounding, breathing is strangled, and my legs ache. With my last bit of strength remaining, I rise to my full height. The world spins around me. I grab my waist as I continue suck oxygen in gulps, and fall back against my front car door.
My heavy breathing reverts to normal as more time passes, and I allow myself a brief exultation. I did it. Because running three miles in the elements is hard, especially if you are carrying as much as weight as I am. And then the temporary jubilation gives way to a brief lamentation of the man I used to be, one who was able to run three miles without hardly breaking a sweat at the tender age of twenty-three.
After I open up the driver side car door and slip inside the interior, I lean back against the seat as I plan my approach for the rest of the day. It’s Sunday, ostensibly a day for rest, reflection, and relaxation before the advent of the busy workweek.
But the siding on the north side of the house is falling apart and needs to be repaired before it collapses onto the ground, my mom wants me to sit in on her phone call with the lawyer, my car squeals when I turn the key in the ignition, the washing machine is making a unusual buzzing sound, and I am scheduled to meet my girlfriend’s family for the first time.
Of all of the worries that I’m carrying, interacting with my girlfriend’s family weighs on me the most, and for more than one reason. It will be the first time that I meet a girlfriend’s parents. I don’t really have any doubts about my ability to impress fair minded potential in-laws, for I am an educated and good-nature individual, and I know that my girlfriend really loves and believes in me. However, with all of that said, I am concerned about the cultural differences that exist between our two respective families.
I am an American black man — I was born in Denver, Colorado — with roots in Nigeria, and there are expectations for how I am supposed to live my life. My mother, a widow, lives in the house with me. Though I am a grown man of forty-three, culture and general sentiment within the Nigerian community dictate that I live in the same dwelling as my mother. “Take care of your mommy,” is a common refrain from my sisters and the people in the surrounding community. My mother has become more of a significant responsibility as she and I have grown older — she is sixty-seven years old. I don’t mind the responsibility and I don’t mind living with my last remaining parent. The house — four bedrooms and two bathrooms — is certainly big enough for the both of us.
My girlfriend and her family are American born, with roots in Scotland. I don’t know too much about Scottish culture, but I know that Sandra’s family has fully embraced their American individualism. If Sandra were to choose to marry me, I’d hope that she, my mother, and I could live in the same home.
When I proposed the prospect of all of us living together to Sandra, she responded by saying she wanted to “have me all to herself”. Of course I would prefer that Sandra and I live in our own place, but I just don’t know if it is possible. The house is too big for one person, especially for my mother who is barely five feet tall and hates being left alone during the day. And she and I have invested so much into the house. Money. Blood. Sweat. Heart. Craft. Love. Having to move out of our home after we’ve put so much into it would be akin to losing a loved one from terminal disease.
And where would my mother live after we sold her house? My sister has offered to take her in, but she currently resides in New York City. Mom would have to uproot her whole life at age sixty-seven so that she could move in with my sister. I don’t know if my family or the surrounding community could abide that.
All of these worries have contributed to my chin hair turning white.
But I’d rather be aging and worried than young and dead.
Before the end of my third decade of life — age zero to thirty — I’d fallen three stories onto concrete, survived guns being pointed in my direction by police on three separate occasions, narrowly escaped being stabbed by a hooligan in Portland, Oregon, and fell into homelessness because of mental illness.
When I was young I was vulnerable to influences, did not know how to engage a world that seemed to always be on the attack, and eschewed advice from family and smart people. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten wise about the world. I’ve realized that life is defined by an endless series of battles, and I have gotten better at navigating them.
Some battles are worth fighting, while others are best left avoided . I only fight the battles that I have a good chance of winning. I’m listening more, cultivating productive personal and professional relationships, and creating a foundation upon which I can build a life. I’ve accrued experience, a sense of self-worth, solid perspective, and psychological and emotional balance. These are the rewards that come with living and learning. I’m fortunate to have gotten old enough to reap the rewards that come with advancing age.
So I’m going to figure things out because I’m old enough and smart enough to know how.