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first person

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Illustration by Adam De Souza

This weekend I cut my hair. A small feat unrelated to the pandemic. I’ve been cutting my own hair since before I left home to share an apartment in downtown Montreal with my older brother.

As children, my father cut our hair. In the kitchen. One child after the other: four in all, less than an hour’s work in total. You got what you got. And escaped outside to play.

By the time I was 15, I wouldn’t let the man touch my hair. Nor would I allow my mother near me with the notorious kitchen scissors. Already by then, we were a house divided, upstairs from downstairs, by sets of record collections.

These days, I’m equipped with so many implements to do the job – an embarrassment of riches that includes an electric cutter with multiple shields, a smaller battery-powered shaver, thinning scissors, a razor and ordinary scissors, which must be some kind of cosmic joke, right, since year by year there is less to shape or cut. Consumerism feeds on despair. Not hair. Not fair.

Could I really capture Dad’s life in a scrapbook?

Oh no! I dropped off the wrong bag at Value Village

Back when I left home to share that apartment with my brother, we just went at the top of our heads with the hedge clippers. Kind of. For sure we selected the right music, turned the volume to 11 and chopped away at each other’s lopsided locks. The more erratic the results, the better.

For by then we had formed our first band together, and in pursuit of street cred, the brothers Steinmetz, underground eccentrics, were caught up in a rivalry between angst and anger.

Though I hungered after the crimes and the punishment of the mosh pit and looked the part of a contrarian in a Russian novel, on the inside I was green and innocent. So yeah, haircuts were important. I would have trusted Peter to do my hair with a hammer and sickle; he knew my rebel dreams inside out.

This was a long time ago obviously. Recently when I announced to my siblings my intention to go stay with our parents for a week or two during the pandemic, my news was received with a bouquet of thumbs-up emojis and bursting hearts.

My father is 83. Over the summer, we had watched helplessly as he lost close to 30 pounds, then became unsteady on his feet. During phone calls home, my father reeled off a list of medical complaints, a symphony of symptoms, the undiagnosed and idiopathic signs that haunted him now every day. Then came the diagnosis this fall.

In Montreal, I accompanied my father daily to his radiotherapy and doctors’ appointments. I walked the dog through a nearby park. With my mother, while opera and classical music played on the Bluetooth radio, I made ugnspannkakan and cooked other Swedish dishes that I was familiar with from childhood.

I was back home with my parents, in their new apartment; so much was familiar and yet different.

One evening after dinner during which my father had attempted a glass of wine against doctor’s orders, he asked me if I would do him the favour of cutting his hair.

I probably should have predicted this – he wasn’t running to the barber, mask or no mask – but in truth, I hadn’t.

And although, as advertised, I am an inveterate cutter of hair, although, I come with life-long experience having practiced on siblings and friends and the dog, and my own children and sometimes my wife – despite this legacy, I lost my composure as my father took his seat before the mirror, then removed his glasses and hearing aids and placed them on the counter.

I hesitated just a few seconds while he waited for me to begin, a bath towel draped around his neck and shoulders.

Clasping strands of his fine hair between my fingers, a stream of thoughts and complex emotions overwhelmed me.

Here he was, the boy, born in Colombia, to parents who had fled Nazi Germany. The boy who immigrated to Canada alone at a stage of development that rarely found me at the same age outside my own suburban backyard.

Here he was, the young father and pediatrician who allowed me from ages 3 to 5 to wander with a tobacco pipe in my mouth.

Here he was, the man who fostered my character, his intellectual curiosity intact, his incurable faith in humanity still in rude health.

Here he was, an old man who appeared at once obedient and almost child-like, waiting for me to begin, so patient in his trust.

Wasn’t it him who oft-repeated after Groucho Marx, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

Wasn’t it him – or maybe my grandfather – who stung a youthful me with the Hector Berlioz quote, “Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.”

It most definitely was him.

The intimacy of the moment was broken by an ironic smile when he gestured for me to go ahead: He didn’t have all night, get moving, just take a little off, here and here.

There was a wellspring of emotion that I would never be able to articulate or express. I placed both hands at his shoulders from behind and standing opposite the mirror it became plain to see that no such words were ever needed.

I remembered my smartphone resting on the counter beside his hearing aids. I selected You’re the Top, by Cole Porter, increased the volume. And cut.

Andrew Steinmetz lives in Ottawa.

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