I shaved my mom’s head recently. Thereby bringing full circle a path we had started down more than 20 years ago when my parents dropped me off at college, and my dad turned me into a “street tough” with the help of a beard trimmer.
(This is the epic neck-shaving incident from the autumn of 1993, which I had the joy of retelling recently when I shaved the back of my own daughter’s head. But that’s another story entirely, unrelated to this particular cake-walk. My kid, she does her own thing. Oh, wait, maybe it’s not entirely unrelated…)
The night before my parents dropped me off at college in Minnesota, I asked my dad to shave the back of my neck. My hair was cut pretty short already in an angled bob (which, with what was left of the bad perm I had my senior year in high school, made me look like a human-poodle hybrid), and I wanted him to shave the back of my neck and line it up with the bob so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a haircut for a long time. (I hate hair maintenance.) He obliged, I was happy, and neither one of us even remotely considered the possibility that my mother was going to hit the ceiling.
Which she did.
There was a huge fight, which took place in the bathroom of the friend’s house we were staying in, wherein she yelled at my dad for aiding and abetting me in what was apparently my pursuit to look like a “street tough.” And yelled at me for wanting to do such a ridiculous thing to my own head in the first place. It was messy and loud. But the hair was gone, and there wasn’t anything to be done for it except yell.
In retrospect it was a necessary argument to make the separation the next day a little easier on everyone, because my parents were about to leave me 1,600 miles away from home. This is, apparently, a big deal when it’s your firstborn kid. I’m starting to understand that a little better now that I have spawn of my own to launch.
Either way, thus was born the “street tough” legend that would come up in our family any time someone shaved part of their head. (Because that is the magical thing that makes you into a street tough, you know. Shave part of your head and BAM – street tough. I’m still not sure what that entails beyond the head shaving, but apparently it’s a bad thing. I mean, I did end up getting tattoos, too. Obviously the haircut was the first step down the wayward path of hedonism and crime I find myself on. Oh, wait. No crime. Damn.)
Which brings us into the present day, and my moment of truth.
I went up a few weeks ago to visit my parents and check in, specifically with my mom. She’s been having chemotherapy to deal with her breast cancer (last one finished this week, much to everyone’s relief, now on to radiation), and she’d landed in the hospital with an infection a week or so before.
She was home and fine, but I just needed to see her face. It’s difficult to be this far away from my parents when they’re going through this.
Chemo sucks. I think this is a truth universally acknowledged to be true. And one of the crappy things about it is that your hair falls out. But it doesn’t all fall out at once. It sheds in drips and drabbles and it leaves a mess all over the place. My mom does not do well with this kind of mess.
She had talked about going down to the local barbershop and just having them shave her head, but when I came to visit she still hadn’t taken the time to do that, which kind of surprised me. We talked a little bit about how annoyed she was with all the bits of hair being left everywhere, and how the mess was bothering her, and I could see from her body language that she was folding in on herself and deflating every time she talked about it. Then she mentioned that she kept meaning to go get her head shaved, but that the barbershop chair was directly in front of a large plate-glass window, and she didn’t want to go in and put herself on display like that.
We had been cleaning the hair off the bathroom floor while she was telling me this, sweeping up the bits that kept shedding as she went through her day. Vacuuming pieces of my mother up and discarding them, as she would put it. And though she was being very matter-of-fact about this story she was telling me, I could see this was bothering her. She needed someone to just do the deed. To take her by the hand and sit her down, and just be done with it.
So I did.
I sat her down on the bench they keep in their bathroom, got out my dad’s electric razor, and used the clipper extension to shave my mom’s hair down to the absolute nubbins right there. All of the bits falling to the floor at once. No more waiting for it to finish. Facing away from the mirror. No more dreading the plate-glass window. Just done.
She has a nice-shaped head.
It’s the same size and shape as my grandmother’s head.
I realized this as I smoothed my hands over her skull, brushing bits of hair to the floor, looking for parts I had missed. Gentle with my mom’s fragile skin, worn out with chemo.
The sense-memories that hit me as I did this, smoothing my mom’s head as I shaved off the remnants of her hair, took me back to the times I had put my grandmother’s baby-fine hair into the soft rubber curlers she used, helping her do her hair when her arthritic hands were too sore to be useful. I would stand behind her as she sat at her kitchen table, in the few years I was old and tall enough to do these things for her, before we lost her to cancer. Methodically putting her wispy, fine age-whitened hair into the curlers she would then sleep on.
My mother and my grandmother, their delicate skulls housing beautiful brains. Wildly different and exactly the same. Matriarchs.
Standing behind my mother in the bathroom, helping her deal with this moment in time that she had been dreading and anticipating ever since the diagnosis came down, I thought of how many times she cut my hair when I was a child. How many times I watched her cut my brothers’ hair. All the hair that had been through her hands, and how there I was, with hers in mine.
I turned the razor off and put it on the counter. I smoothed moisturizer over my mom’s newly-shaven scalp, watching her shoulders relax with the moment having passed finally. Letting go.
And then I thought about that evening in Minnesota, when my mom was so very angry at my dad and me for shaving my neck. For turning me into a street tough.
And I laughed.
Because here we were. Full circle.
I was turning my mom into a street tough.
And it was good.