My dad and I had this little ritual we shared about every fourth time I was at his house for a visit. When he sensed our time together was coming to an end, he would say, “An, would you trim my hair before you go?” I’m no hair stylist, nor have I had even one second of professional training, but for some reason, about 15 years or so ago, my dad decided I had the steadiest hand in the family and entrusted me to tidy up the edges of his hair in between haircuts. Each time I did this, I’d follow him into the bathroom and drape a towel over his shoulders, him facing the large mirror and me standing behind him. He would hand me his hair brush and his clippers and I’d brush his hair, then clean up the nape of his neck and sideburns, brush off the loose hair, pat him on the back and say, “You look good, Dad.”
This past September, my dad attended his 50th class reunion. Reunions were a big deal for him, as he was one of those people who had a close circle of about 50 or so friends he had known all his life and loved dearly. He lived for nostalgia and for reminiscing about their glory days in the 60s. His 50th reunion was especially significant to him as he had only a few months prior been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and had just finished his 6th chemo treatment. He hadn’t lost much, if any, hair — both his hair and goatee, though whiter than they had been only a few months before, were still impressive for 68 years old. But he had lost a lot of weight, and he knew his appearance would elicit concern from his classmates. He also knew he was facing a more emotional reunion than usual and was bracing himself for the point at which the reunion with beloved friends turned into a goodbye. So when I visited the day before the reunion and he asked me to trim his hair, I knew it was more important to him than the hundreds of times I had done it before.
I followed him into the bathroom that day and went through the steps of our familiar ritual, ending it, as usual, by rubbing his back, now much bonier than it had ever been, and saying, “You look good, Dad.” He looked back at me in the mirror, nodding, satisfied that however chemo had changed his appearance, he was ready for the reunion.
You never know when it will be the last time you do something — the last time your child asks you to snuggle them to sleep or to hold their hand crossing the street, the last time you speak to a loved one. I wish I had known that was going to be the last time I trimmed my dad’s hair; I would have said so much more. He passed away two weeks later.
About two months after my dad died, I was in my parents’ house alone, doing a final sweep before we locked the doors for good and my mom moved in with my sister. We had spent those two months packing up 68 years of my dad’s life, 46 years worth of memories my parents shared and all the odds and ends from the lovely childhood my parents gifted to my siblings and I. As I spent the last minutes I would ever spend in my childhood home, I wandered into the guest bathroom and sat down to cry for a bit. When I collected myself, I opened medicine cabinets and drawers to make sure we weren’t leaving anything behind. I pulled out the last drawer, the one just to the right of the sink, and it was still full. There sat my dad’s hair clippers, razors, comb and hair brush, tools that I had used so many times, the remains of the silent but significant ritual I shared with my father. I emptied the drawer, gathering all the items to my chest, and wept for all that came before and all that would never be again.
I’ve no doubt the items in the drawer were simply overlooked in our haste in helping my mom move and never made it into their respective Goodwill box, trash or storage container; the last six months have been a blur for my family. But I wondered whether it also could have been a small sign from my dad meant just for me. A sign that those moments we shared were as important to him as they were to me, that when I ended each haircut with, “You look good, Dad,” I meant so much more: You mean the world to me, Dad; I love you so much; Thank you for all you’ve given me; You never let me down, Dad; You always made me feel special, and loved, and heard; I will miss you forever, Dad. Maybe, it was a sign that my dad and I never got to say goodbye because we didn’t need to. Though our haircut appointments were mostly wordless, our life together was noisy and vivid and extraordinary. He knew how loved he was and so did we. And now, when the loss feels too heavy, when the missing crushes my heart and his love doesn’t feel close enough, I can just open my bathroom drawer. His hair brush is there to remind me.