When I read Nora Ephron's book, I Feel Bad About My Neck & Other Thoughts On Being A Woman, a collection of essays on aging, I remember feeling energised. I'd just entered my 40s and was somewhat at odds and ends, having bought into that nefarious fiction that I was now over the hill and of no real practical use to anybody, let alone myself. Understand, too, that my mother had died six months before and I was doing a slow breaststroke through a thick soup of depression that would last for a few years whilst I mourned her loss and contemplated my own mortality, which I'd never previously done. So I bought Nora's book since the comfort I automatically assumed would be available to me in fiction remained strangely elusive. I'd never before read such candid — and funny — material on a subject I both loathed and dreaded. I still keep my copy on the nightstand for ease of access so I can refer to it on those occasions I'm detained in my bed — and not in a good way, either. But when I'm assailed by worry that not only am I hurtling towards my inevitable and immediate demise, for which I am by no means mentally and emotionally prepared, but that there are 25-year-old girls lining up behind me to give me a kick-start.
My paranoia knows no bounds, I guess.
There comes a point in a woman's life when she begins thinking about (or, if she's like me, fixating on) what the end of her story will be. And it's hard going. Two weeks ago, Nora Ephron came to her own day of reckoning when she died of leukaemia. The news was a shock to me, which underscores the power of media. She felt like a girlfriend. Or, as she would say, woman friend, since she was in fact 71 and so really, the way she reasoned, hadn't been a girl in over 40 years. I not only loved her books and the occasional article I'd come across by her, but I loved her movies as well (When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail, Hanging Up, to name but a few). Not many people seemed to have realised she was battling cancer because she apparently didn't discuss it publicly. She died with the very dignity she championed in her book about growing older. I Hate My Neck is a remarkable clear-eyed take on how women should simply put on their big-girl panties and accept that we are all getting older, even as we find creative ways of taking the sting out of that fact. Take this gem, for instance, in the essay "On Maintenance": 'There's a reason why 40, 50, and 60 don't look the way they used to, and it's not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It's because of hair dye.'
To me, that was almost like stumbling upon the answer to the age-old mystery of what the secret of life is, and it was brilliant. For you to appreciate this, though, you'd have to come from a long line of women who start to grey the day after they turn 30, which, incidentally, I do.
Then there's this tasty morsel I absolutely love from the essay "Blind as a Bat": 'Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on... Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up... Reading is bliss. But my ability to pick something up and read it — which has gone unchecked all my life up until now - is now entirely dependent on the whereabouts of my reading glasses. I look around. Why aren't they in this room?
'I hate that I need reading glasses. I hate that I can't read a word on the map, in the telephone book, on the menu... And the pill bottle! I forgot to mention the pill bottle.'
Again, priceless stuff. Especially to someone who was at the time just grappling with the fact that my glorious vision had suddenly become so bad I had to now not only wear glasses to read, but also to string a needle and polish my toes.
In "I Feel Bad About My Neck", I almost fell off the bed with complete relief when she wrote, 'That's another thing about being a certain age that I've noticed: I try as much as possible not to look in the mirror. If I pass a mirror, I avert my eyes. If I must look into it, I begin by squinting, so that if anything really bad is looking back at me, I am already halfway to closing my eyes to ward off the sight.'
(I didn't know there were other women who did that! Thanks, Nora.)
But it was years later that the main concern of that essay — the neck — became real for me. (If you're a young woman reading this, please note: a tree shows its age in the rings on its trunk; a woman shows hers in her neck. You might as well learn this now.) In fact, it was just this year that I had my own come-back-to-Jesus experience with my neck. You know how suddenly some feature will just pop out at you? Like Nora wrote about, I was in a back seat of a car — no, it wasn't that kind of party, I assure you — but I suddenly saw my neck in the rear-view mirror and started to hyperventilate. Ugh, turkey neck. Which sent me running to the pharmacy the following day to buy my first tube of anti-wrinkle, daily moisturiser face cream that promised to, in just two weeks, uncover 'vibrant, healthier-looking skin with fewer visible wrinkles'. I knew enough to know that I needed to see the words retinol and ageless intensive, and dermatologist tested. So I got the one that had all those words and more encouraging ones to boot. Soon, I was ducking into the pharmacy once or twice a week, squirrelling away potions and creams and whatsits. Can I tell you, my bathroom is now a veritable beauty counter akin to one at Macy's? How did this happen to me? I thought I was years away from all that. The regimen is exhausting. And I don't even know if it's working in the way it ought to. I have the face of a 30-year-old, probably. Okay, 35. But my goddamn neck still looks like a 46-year-old's. Can somebody say gobble-gobble?