Family Humor Stories

The Haircut

 

It was a summer of interruption. “Summerus Interruptus,” I called it and I can’t remember another summer like it. Maybe its because there are four kids and two dogs and every time someone walks by our lawn the dogs bark, as if to defend their turf.

 

Maybe it’s because my Dad’s dementia has progressed and so the three of us daughters shuttle him back and forth between our summer cottages to give my Mom a break. We want to spend some quality time with him before we all fade in his mind, and because this is what family does.

 

Maybe it’s because even though I am supposed to be writing, and answering emails, I find myself drifting out to my beloved garden, the dahlias of all shapes, sizes and colors, the pesky crabgrass poking through the mulch. These are easy solutions to easy problems; pluck and they are gone. The chapter I’m writing? Not so easy. On day two of creation, I’ve already deleted most of it.

 

The problem of the dementia, the slow erasing of my Dad has no easy solution. We will watch, and help, repeat and explain and there is nothing at all to make it better. We are voyeurs to the demise of a man we love and the heartbreaking burden on my mother, who has raised the three of us and now, in her golden years, is caring for a toddler-like person again.

 

When the phone rang on my last full day of summer camp for the kids, I was deep in my emails, deep in crossing things off lists. I almost didn’t answer it.

 

“Lee,” my mother said, and I could hear the strain in her voice. “I’d like to ask you a favor.” My mother is a woman who doesn’t like to ask anyone for anything if she can help it. She is, by nature, a giver.

 

“Sure, Mom,” I kept my voice even but I rolled my eyes. Another interruption. All of these emails blinking at me, the people waiting for answers to questions, the fundraiser for the wounded soldiers, the plane reservations for vacation I had to untangle. “This is your mother,” I told myself. “Calm down, slow down, it will all get done.”

 

“Dad was going to trim my hair, like he always does. But he is feeling dizzy, he bent over in the yard and now he is lying down. I’ve got my scissors here and wet hair. Can I come over?”

 

“Of course,” I said. And it wasn’t until later that I realized the right thing to do would have been to go to her. I was too entangled in my own work and needs.

 

“Do you have some coffee for Dad?” she asked. And I realized that she would be bringing him, like a child, in tow.

 

“Come on over,” I said enthusiastically. “But I can’t guarantee I’m a great haircutter.”

 

In college I had a brisk business cutting men’s hair. I set up shop in the bathroom that connected the boy’s dorm to the girls, a feature that was a constant source of amusement for us young coeds.

 

Something about cutting my own mother’s hair, however, made me feel slightly nervous. I suppose that I wanted to do it perfectly.

 

A few moments later I heard her car on the gravel and her small, slight figure shuffled in. She had a makeshift cape of dry cleaning bag on her shoulders, an old comb, missing some teeth and a pair of hair cutting scissors.

 

I settled my Dad down, trying not to feel the pain in the look of defeat on his face. I gave him water and urged him to drink, fed him the leftover French toast, now cold, from my daughters’ pre-camp breakfast.

 

Then I went outside where my mother was patiently waiting for me to cut her hair.

 

‘I don’t know, Mom,” I said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be very good.

 

“Oh, its just a straight edge,” she waved my concerns away. The scissors were dull and I went upstairs to get my own haircutting scissors. She held a hand mirror out in front of her to watch.

 

There was something so heartbreakingly intimate about that act. I touched my mother’s hair, barely gray at 76. I was doing for her what she had done for me and my sisters for all those years when we were really young. I suppose she’d cut our hair at home as she is doing it now, out of frugality and ease.

 

“Its just a simple, straight across cut,” she said. My mother has never been one for vanity. I love her for that.

 

“I can take you to get it cut in town,” I said. “It was only $17.00 for me.

 

She smiled with her lips closed and shook her head. “Your father has been doing this for years,” she said. “It’s just fine.”

 

I thought about the act of my father cutting my mother’s hair. I wondered if, with his shaking hands, he would be able to do it going forward. I thought about my mother, who had once been told that the future was secure. Now I knew that she worried about the cost of this long, slow slide with dementia, the agonizing lingering of a partial person, the vast cost of health care and nursing homes.

 

I did a decent job. And then I looked her square in the face to make sure the sides were even and gently sloped the way she had requested. What had started as a dutiful task had become an act of love, a care giving of the ultimate caregiver.

 

No child is ever prepared when the roles reverse, sometimes, gently, like a beautiful slow dance, other times in an instant, the aftermath of an accident or illness. My sisters and I have learned to be the parents at times, to ease the fears the way my mother and father once snuck into our rooms to banish the monsters under the bed.

 

I am taking care now. I am noticing these small moments, trying to slow time down. I see these experiences as gifts of grace rather than inconveniences, interruptions in my busy day.

 

“It looks great,” she says enthusiastically, positioning the plastic hand mirror to see the back of her head. My Dad finishes the last of his coffee, rises from the stool steadily and beams at me. It seems the earlier events have been forgotten.

 

“You just come back if you see any strays,” I said. And they both bent to hug me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

26 Comments

  1. Cheryl

    September 13, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Dear Lee,
    What type of dementia does your dad have? My husband is 54 and was diagnosed just prior to his 50th birthday with Frontotemporal Demetia. My daughter and son are in the throws of mourning the loss of their dad, and taking care of me when they feel I need help. I don’t know what I would do without them. Your mom is so lucky to have you and your sisters. As one who hates to ask for anything, it is a new thing we have to learn.
    Your loving description of cutting your mother’s hair brought tears to my eyes.
    Thank you for sharing such an intimate moment.

    My thoughts are with you and your family.
    Cheryl

  2. Rebecca Weber

    September 14, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    How beautiful… I’m so sorry about your Dad but so thankful you’re able to help care for them both. That comes as we grow older…

  3. Smokie Sizemore

    September 16, 2009 at 1:58 am

    You exress so well feelings of having frail parents. They need their children’s help and struggle to ask for it. And many adult children resent helping them. You and they are so fortunate to have many moments yet to cherish. It’s very hard being the grown up with grown up parents. I know your mother’s haircut was just right as it was done with love.

  4. Liz

    September 17, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Lee,

    Another very warm and thoughtfull expression of something that so many daughters go through in life- the “changing of the guard”.

    I recently had to fly to Florida to care for my mother while she had a hip replacement. I remember the same feelings when she asked me to come- a bit of ” ohhh. I am so busy right now, this is not a good time”. Of course when it is your parents, you just do it. My sister came in after a week, to take a turn, and I welcomed that. I feel lucky to be able to share these times with siblings- and it is a very strange feeling to be the caregiver of sorts, to your parent, who was your caregiver. Thank you for your lovely essay of a timeless job most of us find ourselves doing.

  5. Vicki Shanta Retelny

    September 23, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    Hi Lee –
    I just finished reading your book! I laughed and cried. The chapter on your dad really struck a cord with me. I, too, am a writer with a focus on health and nutrition – as I am a registered dietitian, too. I like to think that I can educate my aging dad on his health, but at 72 years old, he seems pretty set in his TV dinner ways. He has all of his faculities and knows exactly which end is up, but as you describe so eloquently in your book – the roles reverse and we want (and need) to take care of our aging parents.

    Thanks for all that you do. BTW: I saw you speak in the roundtable discussion at the blogher conference in Chicago (that’s where I picked up your book). You are an inspiration to women everywhere! I only hope I can get my book out there one day soon! I know my dad would be SO proud….

    -Vicki, Chicago, IL

  6. Paulette

    September 24, 2009 at 2:35 am

    You brought tears to my eyes as well, as I read your words. You put feelings and thoughts into words so well. All of which I have experienced with my Mother that had dementia. She so became the child. Thank you again for sharing your experiences with us. Write another book, PLEASE!! If it werent too painful or personal for you, a book on this subject would help so many that live it every day. With your sense of humor, your way of putting feelings into words, many could relate. Not that this subject is funny, but anyone going through it, has to laugh, there are some moments that make you smile, just to get through it all.
    Just a thought! 🙂

  7. Kim Williamson

    September 30, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Dear Lee,
    I am so sorry to hear about your father. You are right to want to slow time down and to appreciate all those “inconvenient” moments as blessings in disguise. I lost my father last February. His death was sudden and very unexpected. He was the picture of health and then died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage of the brain. I did not get to say goodbye or take the time to appreciate all those moments that were blessings in disguise. Tell your dad you love him and appreciate him every day. I wish I had. God bless you and your family.

    Sincerely,
    Kim Williamson

  8. Becky

    October 4, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Thank you for writing something which I could never explain to someone else. I have been watching my grandmother deteriorate over the past year with dementia…and at the same time raising 5 children of my own (one of which has Crohn’s Disease and my youngest has bilateral sensioneural hearing loss and wears hearing aids). My grandparents raised me – and now I am taking care of them – something I wouldn’t ever give up….what’s even funnier about your story? My grandmother still trims my grandfathers hair (she’s 90 and he is 92) – and we all joke because she stands over him with scissors and talks about being so dizzy – and then starts cutting..and we all know that we should stop her (just in case) – but he won’t let anyone else do it after 65 years of marriage!

    My grandmother has enjoyed your book – I gave it to her because she has been so sad about her health…I told her to read it and laugh (just like I did).

    Thank you for writing this Blog – something to read until your next book! Hopefully I will be able to meet you some day (possibly at the AG Bell conference)!

  9. Lisa

    November 16, 2009 at 12:09 am

    Dear Lee –

    Thank you so much for your wonderful books and blog. Reading your words has been a balm to me and also a lifeline and eye opener to me to know that what I have/am going through is not a new path – but one that has been trod by others. I am not married to a news anchor who was severly injured, and I do not have kids – but I have survived uterine cancer and have taken care of my parents. (I also had scoliosis and wore a lovely back brace in jr. high and high school!)

    Thank you so much for your words. They have lifted my spirits, made me laugh and cry and done the best thing you can do for another human — make someone feel like they are not alone.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    From a grateful fan in Ohio….

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