The Haircut

{This is free association writing. It was good and necessary for me to do, but if you’re looking for a point, I’m not sure it exists here. If I find it buried in these words somewhere one day, I’ll know why I wrote it.}


He enters the house with the usual fanfare, carrying buckets of chocolate and collected change for the girls, bottles of wine, and a scuffed leather duffel I remember from the 1980s. His shoulders are flecked with flakes, a sight I’ve grown up seeing, and his hair is bright white and unevenly growing in haphazard layers left to their own devices for far too long. My girls flock to his side, another thing I remember from 30 years ago, when the four of us kids would greet him in a furious tumble of limbs and “me firsts” after one of his frequent business trips to Denver, or Berlin, or Lisbon.


I can’t recall if my mom hung back angry at his absence, or was still in bed, exhausted from it. I do know my dad spent most of those weekends home carting my brothers, sister, and I to shoe stores for new sneakers, or to soccer games for coaching, and to arcades or movies or whatever else was planned that my mom couldn’t get to with the cooking, caring, and coddling four flouncey children during long stretches of time alone.


Back then, his energy seemed boundless. Either that, or he couldn’t sit at home too long. Maybe it was the constant expected motion of work and traveling. The sudden stop at home base must have seemed boring after so much going. So round and round it was, and if his body would agree now, it would still be in spite of the work and the trips snatched away years ago.


My girls love him like we kids did. He knows that when he walks in the door, and it sustains him for awhile.


But he always grows quiet again, uneasy, not content to sit or talk unless there is something happening, somewhere to go, or someone to joke with in a raucous rush. Whether he was home from trips or here to visit, it’s all the same. I never quite felt enough, matchless to his wit or appetite for doing. Now at nearly 77, his legs don’t take him far and his back keeps him more still than he’d like. Today, his choice has been removed, but he still flails at it, wants to get out. My daughters sense it, too and so when he says, “I want to see the old house,” none of us are too surprised.


The “old house” was built in 1986 in a subdivision not far from where I live now. My dad, mom, and siblings moved there where it was brand new, and I’d just graduated from high school in a Chicago suburb. I was miserable in San Diego, looking at the office window at my neighbor, recently moved from the midwest as I had, my age and assimilated into Southern California, a too-sunny fake existence I loathed. I’d watch his car come and go at all hours, while I sat inside, nurturing homesickness and loss of center. We dated once, but I couldn’t grab onto what he offered because it meant I’d be resigned to San Diego. I didn’t want to stay. I wanted to go. In between, I closeted myself in my bedroom, observed him living his life, wondered when I’d have one, and wallowed.


It was one of those nights when my dad had enough of my hermitism.


“You know you’re going to need to make friends,” he scolded from the doorway. “You can’t stay here forever.”


His voice wasn’t kind. He wanted to push my buttons and make me defiant; to move me to the point where I’d socialize just to get him to shut up. He did that: needled and teased and got you going however he had to do it. For your own good.


That night, he pushed me too far, and I dissolved into tears and he left, contrite. He spent the night trying to make it up to me. Because he did that, too: played the drill sergeant bit to break you down, then returned to dad to build you up. I was fairly used to it and he always got me up and at ’em again. Within months, I’d made friends and built a life, but I knew I wanted to go, still. I did, too, transferring to a Wisconsin college halfway through sophomore year and leaving behind the sun and wallow and the wanting to be somewhere else.


My mom called me from that same house to tell me she had breast cancer. It was in that town I came to see her in the hospital after her mastectomy and hysterectomy. It was there she celebrated her 50th birthday, ostensibly cancer-free, it was there my dad would leave for days at a time with only credit card clues pointing to a Las Vegas binge, or some other place he had to get to to get away from boredom? Tedium? A routine?


I don’t think I’ll ever know, but that house transitioned most of us into someone else, and we all knew it. Some of us haven’t been back for decades. Today, my dad wants to go. He asks to drive by Pomerado Hospital where my mom was diagnosed, treated, and given the go ahead to live; he grows quiet at Rancho Bernardo Inn, a place my mom loved for a brunch or a stay; he retreats further inside himself at the Remington Club, my mom’s place of employment for her “after-retirement” job, which was down the road from the Vons where my brother worked as a cashier and the Jack in the Box that was my sister’s first job and my youngest brother’s first choice for fine dining in the whole entire world.


We drive by the old house.


The images flashed by for me, and I imagine it was that way for my dad. How his scuffed duffel and garment bag would hang aloft from his fingers as he held his arms up to hug his children, older then my daughters are now, and used to my dad coming and going. The golden retriever wagging her tail at his arrival, my mom hanging back a little, still tired, and a little angry she married a salesman even though he gave her a choice, told her he’d be more gone than there.


I wonder if he remembers needling me out of self pity all those years ago, if he sees the credit card bills my mom threw to him across the table; or if he’s recalling only happy things. It’s most likely a pungent and rollicking mix of all these memories, furiously throwing themselves at the psyche, hoping for a chance to be retold or re-testified. Old houses will do that.


I can no longer stand my once electrified dad, always moving or wanting to, sitting silent and motionless in the passenger seat next to me. We have to get away from there, and what the past is doing to him. I suggest a beachside restaurant and never quite succeed in getting him out of himself, so we head home earlier than the sun. As we draw close to my neighborhood, I have a sudden and strong urge to buy my dad a haircut. In fact, I insist. I don’t know what to do with this maudlin man and his quick onset arrested inertia. A haircut seemed reasonable. Or different. Or desperate. Or, something.


No, I know. I wanted my dad to look less sad. More in control. His hair is shaggy and past his shoulders, and I need it to be tamed and coiffed, because that would mean everything was neat and orderly and not going outside the lines where I might be losing my dad to regret or not being able to move or despising himself for being in motion decades upon decades, because family is most important, he knows that now, I imagine.


I imagine. I don’t know what he knows or thinks because he so rarely tells me. I wonder if he’s content to relive the adoration my girls shower on him for those brief moments of first arrival because he thinks back to my brothers, sister and I as children; if he’s relegated the silent wife and the impatience and the always-having-to-go and always-wanting-to to the that’s-just-who-he-was-and-what-he-had-to-do compartment, or if he’s needing to somehow go back and change things.


I don’t know. I instruct the barber to cut my dad’s hair, watch as thin, snow layers fall to the ground in clumps of fuzz, and study my father’s face in the mirror.


It’s all I can do.

5 Responses to “The Haircut”

  1. Green Girl in Wisconsin says:

    My heart breaks and gets filled at the same time reading this.

  2. Me says:

    “It is all I can do.” At least it’s something!

  3. Audric's Mom says:

    Your post makes me miss my dad more.. :(

  4. Wow. Deb. Amazing and brilliant and poignant and moving and everything that is always you. God, I love you and your writing.

  5. Becky says:

    Lovely, Miss Debbie. I get a little restless, too, and wonder if I will regret it later. I try so hard not to (on both counts).

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