I’ve been observing with some tenderness the ways in which my friends are going gray. One at the temples, another with ethereal opal strands, a third with magnificent waves of peppery black. My younger brother started graying in his twenties. They came in patchy at first: a sideburn, a cowlick, a shock of white on the back of his head. A decade later, the gray has established itself with authority. My husband, whose sandy brown hair makes a less obvious contrast to gray, is manifesting the passage of time in his eyebrows, which have begun to grow gangly and askew in that unmistakable old-man way.
When I was young, the women around me talked about the appearance of gray hairs with the same repulsed urgency I use when reporting cockroach sightings to the exterminator. Grays were dreaded indicators of mortality, confirmations of the ways we’re beholden to time. Such antipathy always confused me, though: gray seemed mysterious and dignified, the undisputed coif of choice for writers and lighthouse-keepers and lupine-planters. Not long after the pandemic’s first apocalyptic spring, I began to notice my own gray hairs emerge, then multiply. One morning I knelt to tie my oldest daughter’s shoes, and she exclaimed with mischievous glee that the top of my head was speckled with white. The sudden ingression of these unbidden strands seemed, for all intents and purposes, right and just. Death was doing its thing on the world. The hair was my own memento mori, a cross of ashes threaded onto my body. Reminders of death’s nearness were everywhere, and they were almost uniformly terrifying. But these slivers of gray forecasted my someday-death in a different voice: they felt beautiful, familiar, like the whisper of a confidant. Here, it seemed, was the companion to St. Francis’s Sister Death. I could wear fragility like a crown.