From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

The Haircut

His heart was as great as the world, but there was not room in it to hold the memory of the wrong.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The ringing telephone pierced my peaceful silence as I relaxed in my living room. It was the admitting clerk at the hospital, calling to tell me that my mother was being taken there by ambulance.

When I arrived, they were wheeling Mom in on the stretcher. Her eyes were open in a blank, glazed stare; she could not move nor utter a single word. Mom had suffered a massive stroke. The doctor told us that any treatment would be futile and that death was imminent. As we watched in disbelief, she slipped from life to death in three hours’ time. I was devastated and delirious with grief.

My parents had been married almost forty-two years. My mother had spent most of this time raising their ten children and trying to survive my father’s alcoholism. Dad’s problem had plagued our family. Mother’s only solace was her faith in God and her commitment to her children.

Four years prior to my mother’s death, my father retired, his drinking subsided, and their lives seemed less tumultuous. Somehow, after decades of abuse, there seemed to be more peace between the two of them and a lot less anger. It was as though she forgave him for the many years of sorrow and remorse.

But years of living with an alcoholic father had filled many of the ten of us siblings with anger and animosity toward him. We had not been blessed with the forgiving heart of our mother. Dad had been our cross to bear; Mom had been our savior. When we went to their house it was to visit Mom; the fact that Dad lived there, too, was immaterial. When we called home, it was Mom we conversed with. We shared our hopes, dreams, future plans, sorrows, joys, heartaches and accomplishments with her. I guess we always knew she would relay all this information to Dad, but we never really sat down and had a meaningful conversation with him.

When Mom passed away, I was only twenty-two and living near my parents’ home. It was difficult surviving without my vibrant mother. She had been the sun that could melt the winter snows, the electricity that could illuminate and enlighten my mind, the North Star as my guide to wherever life would lead me—and now she was gone.

Left here on Earth was my father. I had known for a long while that I was Dad’s favorite. He was less harsh with me as a child than with my siblings. Perhaps it was because I was the youngest or maybe because I always tried to see a reason or find an explanation for the way he was. I prayed and trusted that God would make sense out of a senseless situation. As I grew older I learned to divide my father into two people: my sober father, whom I loved, and my alcoholic father, whom I treated as a stranger. This had become my key to survival.

One day not long after Mom died, I stopped by Dad’s to see how he was doing. It was obvious that he was getting by, but not very well. He had learned to use the washing machine, vacuum, stove and microwave, but his menu included lots of hamburgers and hot dogs and barrels of coffee. It was also evident that he was in dire need of a haircut.

Mom had started cutting Dad’s hair when they were first married. In forty-two years I don’t believe he ever went to the barbershop. I spent hours watching her gently and lovingly cut and trim everyone’s hair, with clippers, shears and comb in hand.

“Do you think you could cut my hair?” my father asked sheepishly.

Cowardly, I responded, “I’ve never cut hair.”

“But you’ve watched your mother cut hair hundreds of times, so do you think you could try?” he pleaded.

I felt doomed. Why did it have to be me? Wasn’t there anyone else who could fill these shoes? With grave reluctance I relinquished all my objections. I managed to utter only two words, “I’ll try.”

Dad retrieved the comb, scissors and clippers from the cupboard, and I began my feeble attempt. It occurred to me that I had never really “touched” my father, as we’d never been a hugging, touching family. I was even a bit embarrassed, not so much by my inept haircutting skills, but by my inability to cross the abyss that had always been present between my father and me.

Dad’s graying hair was beautiful. Graceful waves gently covered up any mistakes I made. While I clipped away at his hair, carefully cutting around his ears and trimming with the clippers, we chatted about my son, my brothers and sisters, Mom, and the haircuts she had given over the years. This was truly the first real conversation I ever remember sharing with my father. As I finished, I trimmed his eyebrows and brushed the hair off his neck. He wet his hair and combed it—not a bad job after all.

Throughout the next few years, I became my father’s barber. The job seemed to get easier with each attempt, and it was a ritual we both came to enjoy. Our conversations grew to include politics, religion, world affairs and what we would do if we won the lottery. He truly was a brilliant man and could talk for hours about the conflicts in the Middle East, China and Europe, giving insight into all the details and backgrounds of these events. He’d endured twenty presidential elections and subsequent administrations. His recollection of history and current world affairs was enviable.

Ten years passed. One day, when Dad was almost eighty, I visited him and cut his hair. When I had finished, he shyly asked if I might wash his hair in the kitchen sink. A bit embarrassed at first, I reluctantly agreed.

If I should live to be an old woman, I will never forget that day. It is forever imprinted in my mind. I can still see myself standing there at the kitchen sink, washing his beautiful gray curls, rinsing away all the many years of despair, anger and remorse. The washing, the touching, the healing, the forgiving between an old man and his loving daughter closed the abyss that had always been present between us. It would vanish that day like new snowfall on an early spring morning, to evaporate and disappear forever. The wounds that had festered for so long had finally healed; scars had been clipped, trimmed and washed away.

Margaret J. Wasilewski

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