Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dad's Hair

My dad had great hair.

While I don't remember this far back, pictures tell me that he had a crewcut when he and Mom were first starting our family...he was a cop, after all, and that's the traditional cut, correct?

His hair was dark and really, really thick, and I think that by his early 40s, he was almost completely grey. But, a beautiful luxurious grey.

I can remember my dad taking good care of his hair. When I was pretty little, probably around 6 or 7, I remember sneaking into his and Mom's bedroom, and peaking around the corner to watch him get ready for work in the bathroom. He'd be wearing his CHP uniform without any of the fixin's that went on last -- the belt, the leather of which I can still hear as he put it on, and the gun, for instance -- and first he'd shave. I can still hear the scrape of the razor along his chin, see him dip it into sink water, swish it quickly back and forth to get the shaving cream off, and then flick the water off to go in for another stroke. I can still smell the shaving cream -- the kind that came in the red and white metal can and was so fluffy and white you wanted to eat it. But I digress...I want to get back to his hair.

I can also see loads of different hair products on the sink. Paul Mitchel comes to mind...he was always coming home from a new haircut with some new styling product or brush to try. Then he'd blow dry his hair. Yes, blow dry. He didn't have a crew cut by this time, so he had a lot of thick, coarse hair, and he'd spot me peeking around the corner, but act like he didn't see me. When he picked up the blow dryer to start drying, he'd also start singing, "I'm so pretty, oh, so pretty....so pretty, and witty, and wise..." Really, he'd sing that. And I'd giggle. And eventually he'd acknowledge my presence, give his by-now-dry-and-perfectly-coiffed hair a bit of a spray to hold it in place, finish putting on all the leather and hardware, and be on his way.

And my dad was typically fairly stylin'. In an understated way more often than not. In the 70s or 80s -- I'm not sure exactly when -- he even used to get perms. And they actually looked good. He got them in town from Rene. I'm sure she could tell LOTS of stories about my dad coming into her shop, but she told me one a few weeks after Dad died that I had forgotten about. I was in her shop (now a gift and floral shop...no more hair stylin') picking out some balloons for Missy's birthday, and spotted a picture of Dad on her wall. He was sitting in her old shop in the barber's chair wearing one of those apron-things they put on you when you have your hair done, complete with a towel around his neck to catch the drips. When I first glanced, I expected that it would be of him in curlers, getting a perm; someone somewhere must have pictures of that. But instead, his hair was curler-free....and pink. PINK. Apparently, Rene had told him she wanted to try a new product on him, and since he was always up for that, he didn't think anything of it and let her work on his hair facing away from the mirror. She worked in some non-permanent color -- pink -- and then let him see the results. My dad was all about style, but this, she said, royally pissed him off. He began yelling at her, and insisted that she wash it out immediately. She did...after some giggling and picture taking, and it took an hour or so, she said. My guess is that she got a little nervous in the process. After all, Dad was a guy who loved a practical joke, but he was pretty darned serious about his hair.

I hadn't ever noticed this picture in Rene's shop, though I'd been there a few times before, so I asked her if it had been put up recently. She got kind of quiet, and said she had put it up shortly after Dad died. She had to put together a lot of flower arrangements ordered for our family when Dad passed, and she said she found it incredibly difficult to make them. She put the picture up to give her something to smile about.

At some point, Dad stopped getting perms, and went back to wearing a crewcut. When he died, he had worn it that way for so long that I honestly can't remember when he switched to that style. More often than not, he kept it cropped pretty close to his head, and at first glance after a fresh cut, it could look like he'd shaved his hair completely off.

By the time I got home to Bridgeport the morning he died, his body had already been transported to a mortuary in Bishop. Though the family hadn't had a chance to talk about it yet, on my drive over -- amidst all the agonizing and crazy thoughts and feelings going through me -- I panicked and called my brother to make sure they wouldn't cremate Dad before I got home. I needed to see him and say goodbye. Jim assured me that a decision to cremate him hadn't been made yet, and even if it had, they would wait.

Dad died on Wednesday, and on Thursday morning, all of us went down to Bishop to make all the arrangements with the mortuary. Mom, Bill, Cathy, Jim, Missy, Lacey, and I piled into Bill and Cathy's family van (they didn't bring their girls to Bridgeport until right before the service) for the 90-mile drive. We alternately laughed, cried, and sat in stunned silence looking out the windows, but the trip went quickly, and I was surprised and grateful for how comforting it felt to be in that confined space with my family on a trip with such a devastating purpose.

After we sat with the mortician and made all the arrangements for the cremation, Jim let him know that I wanted to see Dad. No one else wanted to. But I had to. Part of me was terrified to see him dead; after all, though I'd lost people close to me starting when I was 12, I'd only once attended an open-casket service, and that was by accident (a friend in high school was propped up in his casket, and I hadn't known that was going to be the case, or I might have chosen not to go). But a much bigger part of me knew I had to see Dad, let him know I love him, and kiss him goodbye.

I had meant to take Jim aside earlier in the day and ask him if he'd at least go in with me, as I didn't want to go in alone. I forgot, though, and when it came time, though Mom and Bill both offered, we could all tell they didn't really want to go in, so Cathy offered. And when it came time to go in, without our speaking any words to each other, she was with me in exactly the way I needed her to be. She stood behind me, put her hands on my shoulders, and then walked me down the hallway that led to the room where Dad was. I felt a little like "Dead Man Walking," as all my senses were heightened and it was entirely surreal moving down that hallway. As we neared the open door that led into the room, I stopped short and felt all the breath leave my body as my eyes landed on my dad across the room. He was laying on his back with thick sheets pulled up to his shoulders. I was instantly grateful that he was still my dad...he was still my dad. He looked like himself, eyes closed and peaceful, but it took me a few moments to gather myself for the final walk across the room to him. And without a word, Cathy knew to let me go that final distance alone. I'll be forever thankful to her for that.

I made my way across the room, and stood even with my dad's chest, and looked down at him with my arms by my side. All I could do initially was lay my head on his stomach, my face toward his, but eyes closed, and cry. I told him I loved him...that I missed him....that I didn't want him to be gone. I eventually opened my eyes, lifted my head, and straightened up. And knew that I needed to stroke his face, tell him I love him, and kiss him. But I knew he'd be cold, and that scared me.

Then I became aware of his hair. That hair. And what was I thinking?...I was thinking that I was so. Incredibly. Thankful. That he needed a haircut.

That's what I was thinking. He had let his crewcut grow out -- I'm sure it was only because he'd been too busy to get it cut -- and I was so thankful. Because I knew that I could touch his hair first, and it was long enough that I wouldn't intially feel the cold. I reached out with my left hand, and gently ran it across the top of his hair...and smiled. Because I was right. It wasn't cold. And I then had the courage to stroke his hair full on. Now I could feel the cold of his recent passing. But I wasn't inhibited anymore. I was able to move to stroke his cheek. With tears streaming down my face, shaking now out of grief rather than fear, I told him how much I loved him, and bent down to kiss him goodbye.

It's weird all the things that go through your head. After I kissed him goodbye, I stayed with him, and thought of my Hmong students back in Fresno. Of how, in traditional Hmong culture, relatives of the deceased stay with the body around the clock for three (or maybe it's five) days. And I understood in that instant why they are driven to do that. I didn't want to leave my dad's side. Though I was faintly aware that Cathy was at the door and the rest of my family was waiting outside for me, I was tempted to just stay there. Forever. To just be with him.

I don't know how many minutes I stayed, but after stroking that hair one more time, then his cheek, and telling him I love him, I walked back to Cathy, who helped me back out to my family.

And after I sobbed in each of their arms in turn, and finally composed myself to some extent,

I told them how thankful I was that Dad needed a haircut.


  1. Oh Kathie, thanks for writing this. So beautiful.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. I feel that I'm getting to know you (and your family) all over again -- what an awesome gift! Also, I'm in awe over your courage and heart -- you totally ROCK, girlfriend!

  3. Kathie - wow is this ever an amazing post. Like Liz said, the gifts you have given the rest of us, as you navigate through, are truly incredible. Thank you.