CutBy Rachel Zients Schinderman
October 19, 2009
I got my hair cut and then my grandfather died.
I knew one had nothing to do with the other, but for some reason, for months after, I was unable to cut my hair. I wore my hair mostly in a ponytail or crumpled atop my head, but there was no hiding the split ends, its drab dullness. Sometimes I just let it fall where it may, flapping and resting wildly on my shoulders.
My grandfather would never have let his hair get into such a state. He was a classy guy. Always impeccably groomed. He could pair stripes and plaid and pull it off with grand ease. Sometimes he wore funny ties, ladies lounging in martini glasses and that kind of thing, but it was never cheesy – just pure sass. Even in the hospital when he had been ill a couple of years ago, hooked up to machines, stripped of his beautiful clothes, his only wardrobe a hospital gown and sheet, I couldn’t help but notice that his nails were perfectly manicured, freshly buffed. He was sleek and elegant, unique but classy. He had been in retail, head of Gimbels, back in the day when Gimbels meant something. So he knew about appearance.
I have never been that way. Askew is a word my friends would use to describe my style. Cute, funky, but never completely without a wrinkle or a rip. I do what I can to not be a walking disaster. My hair is usually something that while not blown, curled, teased, set or held together by product, is usually trimmed and neat. That much I have been able to do. But since that Sunday, many months before, the color was fading, the gray was showing and my hair bands were snapping at all the extra use.
Before that last haircut, my hair was finally getting longer, growing out after I had chopped it one day. But it was just kind of falling there. My baby fine hair didn’t swing and flow as I wished it would. So I called up my stylist, Moses, to see if he could fit me in. It would be layers. All over. They would add depth, movement. Drama. I loved it. And so did the people I saw that night. “Best haircut you’ve ever had,” I recall someone saying.
Then my Aunt called. My grandfather was in the hospital. Something had happened the night before. I was assured I didn’t need to rush home. I live in Los Angeles. He was in New Jersey. I asked my Aunt to tell him that I loved him.
I get the sequence wrong, but he fell into a coma, I was looking into flights and then the phone rang. I didn’t answer it. I made my husband get it. I knew. A moment earlier I had felt it pass through me. Jay handed me the phone and I heard my Aunt say, “This is the phone call.” I had dreaded this moment, but had been anticipating it. He was in his nineties. He’d been in the hospital before. But he had always pulled through. I didn’t really believe the call would ever come.
I fell deep into the couch, heaving and suffering, digging into its yellow color as if bad news did not exist within its cushions.
We went to New Jersey, to the funeral. I shook as we approached the cemetery, then stood frozen. Two graves I could handle, but this now made it three. I made it into the building with my family, his friends. I actually felt pretty in my black wrap dress and new haircut as I greeted my family. The prettiness provided me with a strength.
There is something about funerals. Something about the ritual and the routine. There is a reason we travel 3,000 miles to hug our family and eat food together. There is a reason.
Later, in the confines of my bedroom in my mother’s house, I turned to my husband as we prepared for bed. “Let’s make a baby,” I whispered to him. It felt mostly like a plea. “Let’s make a baby,” I said again. “And name it Bernie, boy or girl, okay?”
He took me in his arms and took me to bed and agreed, never divulging the truth that we both knew, that I was on the pill and baby making would not be easy. But I needed to believe that in that instant I could create life on a wish and a demand.
I returned home and went about my routine. I was in a fog but no one would know unless they asked. I hid it well. And fairly soon after my return, they stopped asking.
There is a certain amount of grieving to be done for grandparents. They were old. It was expected. Glad to have known him so long. It wasn’t a parent. I repeated these beliefs over and over until I myself started to spout their truths. And then eventually I just stopped talking about it. But in my car alone, I cried. The streets would just pass by me as I drove, bright lights and other people going about their days. And then I would arrive at others’ doors and I was fine. See, I thought I knew about grief. I was a child of death, after my father died when I was four. I should know how to handle this. My grandfather’s death had halted me but I felt I could not show it, so it showed in my hair.
My hair. My wild mane defied how I seemed: together, rigid almost. But my unkempt disarray actually defined how I felt: distressed, discouraged, stalled. The mirror spoke a truth only I knew. I felt I carried a secret everyone around me should know, but one I felt compelled to keep to myself. Or maybe they all knew. I did look a mess. And yet I was unable to do anything about it. Whenever I called Moses he was never there and I took that as a sign that I should not get my hair cut. My grandfather’s death had stalled me so that I could not even make an appointment for the future. If Moses was not there right then, there would be no haircut.
I have never taken hair that seriously. I was never locked into a look. I’d cut bangs on a whim, highlight with no worries or chop off my hair when a boy had made me cry. There was a certain freedom to changing it up. What’s the harm? It’ll grow back. It’s just hair, I reasoned. Hair bounces back. It is the only part of your body that you can change without any serious consequences. It was something I knew completely. But then at that moment, I knew nothing.
What is it that I fear will happen? Will someone else die? I don’t have that much power I remind myself. If I go for a hair cut my mother’s plane will not crash, my grandmother will not die. I know that rationally. But what if I did have that kind of power? What if this was the time my powers were turned on. One action causes another action. Coincidence is actually consequence. Or what if it were pure coincidence and it happened again?
But separate from that, hair carries our past. My grandfather’s in there. He’s in my DNA. I had this hair when I knew him. The hair on my head was created by his side. And I am not ready to part with it. It is my tangible access. At times I just want to shave it all off, be done with it. But mostly I just want to keep as much of it with me for as long as I can.
I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror. Staring back at me with my hair falling where it may, I saw a different girl. My hair had reached a certain length and wave at that moment that I looked earthy. It struck me. It was the first time for a while that I could remember thinking I was pretty. And it had nothing to do with the mop on my head. Possibly it wasn’t my hair that had been weighing me down, but me. And maybe just maybe, that part of me was waking up.
I went to see Moses.
I told him straight away about my hair, my grandfather and my phobia. He greeted me with a sound in his voice of someone else who had gone through a recent loss. I knew his grandmother had recently died. He got it. He did not judge. It was perfectly reasonable to think if you cut your hair someone would die.
He wouldn’t cut much off he assured me. Just clean it up, make me presentable. Maybe fiddle with the color a little?
“Okay,” I said. I needed to trust him. I needed to just follow along. I needed to know that I could do this. The Police’s King Of Pain played above.
Then, he asked how he died. That surprised me. To tell the story. Most people hear grandfather. 92. Dead. And they don’t need to know how. It was hard to tell. “Dehydrated…coma…cardiac arrest.” I was unsure I even had it right. But it also felt good. Real. I don’t know if I thanked him for asking but I meant to.
He continued to cut my hair, layers around my face.
The world did not end.
My cell phone did not blare with bad news.
He colored it to give the brown some unity and then lightened the top pieces that fell by my eyes. He said he wouldn’t even charge me for the highlights.
I made it through this part. I took a deep breath as he twirled me into the mirror’s view. My hair rested on the floor. I rose up in the seat, lighter, as he revealed the streaks of blond racing across my head.
I thought the story would end when he started cutting. I wanted to feel all better. I wanted it all to lift up and be done with. I wanted to leave it on the floor with the hair being swept away. As I looked in the mirror, I knew that was not the case. The grief and the hair were two different things. But I also knew as I gazed upon myself, with my new lovely hair that brought out my eyes, that I was in there somewhere.
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