Blue Hair on Fridays

“I wondered if he noticed her blue hair? He showed no reaction to the fact that the elderly woman sitting across from him in his opulent banker’s office had just about the bluest hair he had ever seen. I am Deborah Stephens and that blue-haired lady was my grandmother.

“Her blue hair, combined with a matter-of-fact demeanor, penetrating eyes, and down-home hospitality, left no doubt that he, Mr. Banker, was just a minor obstacle standing between her and what she wanted—a loan. It never occurred to her that there were reasons she might not succeed: her lack of collateral (her home wasn’t in her name), no credit rating, and the fact that, in those days (a mere thirty-some years ago), a woman could not even have a credit card in her own name. Nonetheless, I knew Mr. Banker was no match for the blue-haired lady.

“Her silver mop of hair was always tinted blue on Fridays—a tint, a curl, and a comb-out every Friday morning, no matter what. The whole process left her feeling beautiful, powerful, and bold. And so I came to love the blue hair almost as much as I loved her. I also grew up believing that all confident women of a certain age tinted their hair blue!

“That day was a defining moment for me. Yes, my grandmother received the loan—a college student loan, for me. Her negotiation skills could blow the doors open in any corporate boardroom. Yet she was uneducated and poor. Her wealth was comprised of deep religious beliefs and unconditional kindness. She also possessed the tenacity of a bulldog, as she never let the word ‘no’ stand in her way.

“What my grandmother lacked in cash, she made up for in an abundance of dreams. She had an unrelenting belief in me, greater than any belief I held about myself. No matter the circumstances or challenges, she was determined that I would go places in life that she and my mother had only dreamed about. Every woman should have a blue-haired lady like my grandmother in her life. She is the woman who thinks you are terrific even when you don’t feel terrific—the woman who always believes that anything is possible, no matter the odds.

“Thanks to her, I attended college, landed an exciting corporate job, and made more money in a year than my mother had made in ten. Years later, I co-founded a management consulting firm, wrote six books, and gave speeches all over the world. Consulting with leaders (including a US President), I had the opportunity to work with some of America’s most powerful people in a world that had been closed to my grandmother. Yet she was my inspiration.”

Obstacles and Possibilities

“Obstacles and possibilities often meld together to form defining moments in life, sometimes appearing just when we think we have life figured out. Unfortunately, smartly compartmentalized lives can be turned upside down in a matter of moments. One such moment involved my husband, Mike. After playing a round of golf, he experienced waves of pain that made him unable to walk as muscles spasmed throughout his body. After six months and numerous trips to the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, doctors began to unravel the illness that was ravaging his body, which, by that time, had destroyed over half his lung capacity. His diagnosis began with the term “pulmonary fibrosis, caused by dermatomyositis and polymyositis”—words I could neither pronounce nor understand. We were told that he had five to six years to live. Our children were ages six and ten. The doctors suggested a lung transplant.

“Writing on Memorial Day, a time when we honor those who have served and died in wars, I realize that my husband was a veteran of a very different kind of war—a war on a rare disease. It is twelve years since his diagnosis and three and a half years since his death. Mike outlived his doctors’ prognosis by so many years that he was among the longest living patients ever treated for pulmonary fibrosis. When he died, Jackie remembered this warrior by having the American flag flown at half staff on the nation’s capital in his honor.

“Mike and I and our children spent over half our lives fighting this terrible disease while trying to live a normal life. There were times of fear and sadness and many times of happiness. There were battles with insurance companies over experimental drugs, prior authorizations, and responsible parties. There were hospitalizations and ambulance rides in the middle of the night. There was a move from our home in San Francisco to a small Midwestern town—a move that brought us closer to Mike’s family and acknowledged the reality that the lung transplant list in that region was shorter.

Many women have stories like mine. The difference? I am blessed with friends like Jackie, Jan, and Michealene, and I am supported by the wisdom of other women that helped prepare me for a future I didn’t want.

“Moving to a small community in the Midwest at the age of fifty meant leaving behind my home, friends I loved, and a support system that I had always relied upon. I carried a piece of paper in my purse for courage that read: What would the blue-haired lady do? While I didn’t know a single woman in my new state, however, I knew the importance of women’s friendships in my life. So I tried to figure out how to meet as many women as I could in the shortest period of time. My solution was to create a women’s conference similar to the one Jackie had started in California. Today, that conference is in its eighth year and has grown to be the largest event of its kind for women in the Midwest.

“Billie Dragoo, now my closest friend in my new home, joined me in getting the conference off the ground. After meeting her for coffee one morning, I knew she was the kind of person every woman should have in her corner. She opened up doors for me, introduced me to others, and was encouraging and kind.

“I tackled my husband’s illness, our move, and our family’s transition as my most important project. I followed the steps and the advice given in this book almost as a textbook case. Yet as Mike’s disease progressed, I never once thought about what my life would be like after his death. Planning for a future without him never registered in my thoughts.”