Walking down the dimly lit hall of my parents’ home, I see the large, familiar, and dark painting of the toreador ready to strike the bull. His cape, a flaming red, swooping up and behind him, one knee planted in the sand, and the bull ready to angrily gore him should he make one misstep. This has always been a curiosity to me as my mother has spent much of her life attempting to divest herself of her Mexican roots. Yet here, the painting that greets me each time I near her room, stays year after year.
I slowly open the door to her room. This room with the light blue walls, light blue drapes with pink roses and dreadful maroon carpeting. The carpeting, here from when my parents bought the house, has never been replaced. Well, I suppose they could have replaced it, but my education and that of my brother’s was always paramount. Alicia, my diminutive mother, had made the best of things and the room was cool in summer and cozy in winter. It was the place where souls were bared, and she and I spent many late nights talking about boyfriends and school and . . . .
First, I feel the humid warmth from my mother’s recent shower and then the strong, sweet smell of her heavy pink cold cream. Condensation still clings to the full length mirror to the left of the doorway.
“How are you feeling?” I ask.
“Hi, honey. Come on in. I’m fine. I’m just having some trouble with this.”
Sitting at the vanity table, she has pulled off her white, terry-cloth turban and is attempting to pull on her new wig, but it wants to slide to one side.
“Let me help you with that.” Walking over, I stand behind her, placing the front of the brown, softly curled wig first on her forehead and then pulling the rest down and back over her head. I tuck the wispy, sparse hairs back under the wig and then inspect the result. My mom almost looks like herself again. The eyebrows are long gone, but they can be drawn in and makeup will bring back some of her color. I catch myself in the lighted make-up mirror. My complexion is so rosy and mom’s so yellow. I have to look away.
So many times I have sat on the floor or on her bed watching her apply her makeup or curl her hair with hot rollers. How did it all of a sudden become so different? When did the feeling change? When did she become so quiet after so many years of long, meandering, stream-of-consciousness talks?
Ah, the bed needs making—a simple, mindless chore that mom can no longer manage herself. Walking over to her side of the bed, a grisly sight greets me as I pull back the covers. “Mom, there is quite a bit of hair here.” Of course, I open my mouth before I think. Of course, mom knows about the hair. Of course, this would happen. Why wouldn’t it? Why in the hell didn’t I see this coming? Why do the little pieces of reality always hit me as a surprise?
“I know. It just keeps coming out. It’s such a pain. I wish it would all just fall out at once.” Mom picks up her eyebrow pencil and begins her artwork.
I hesitate, but then scoop up the long salt and pepper hair off the pillow and sheets, wad it up, and throw it in the toilet and flush. It’s like throwing my mother away. I don’t want her to see her hair in the bathroom trash all day. It would be a constant reminder of things lost. Suddenly everything seems more important: the make-up mirror, the worn slippers, and the small Madonna statue that has survived many moves. I walk back in the room and, like the result of a post-hypnotic suggestion, find myself once again sitting on the edge of the bed. “Mom, I know this probably sounds really awful, and I feel funny even suggesting this . . . .”
“What, honey?” She was applying her blush now.
“Well, if your hair is bothering you, we could remove it all at once. I could . . . .”
“Shave my head?” She stiffens only for a moment and then she picks up her lipstick. Having learned every inflection of her voice and every movement of her body, there is little that we can keep from each other, no matter how hard we try. But, my mom is becoming more and more remote. She’s leaving me even now.
“Yeah, but only if you think you want to. It’s just a suggestion.”
Fingering her wig near the temple, pulling out a bit of brown curl like she’s done all her life, I can tell that something is coursing through her agile mind. Perhaps she had already thought of shaving the rest of her hair off, but with me actually giving voice to it, it was too real. “I don’t know. I appreciate the thought, but I’ll have to think about it.”
I’ll think about it. That generally means no. In her present state, I am in no way going to push things, and let it drop immediately. Once mom is finished getting ready, we both leave the warmth of the sweet smelling room and go to the kitchen to have breakfast.
I visited her room again later that night. She was standing in her pajamas in front of the full length mirror.
“I’ve decided. I’ll do it.”
“Do what?” The subject had dropped so quickly from my mind that I had clean forgotten my earlier suggestion. I had brought my two small boys with me, as I have on every trip, and the day had turned into a visit to the local park to show them where I had grown up swinging and sliding. There was a quick meal at the local fast food restaurant and then an evening of watching the latest video with the whole family in the downstairs TV room. Death’s tokens had been swept clean from my mind, if only for a few sunlit hours.
My mother’s lips thinned as she continued staring at herself in the mirror. “Shave it off. Shave it off right now. I can’t stand it. I can’t stand looking at this!” For a moment, an awful, terrible moment, I saw my strong, resilient mother look like a terrified child, and then it was gone.
“OK. You mean you want me to do it right this minute?” I find myself nervous. No, frightened. Yes. Frightened. Frightened of having to see her without her wig. Frightened to have to touch her balding head. Frightened of everything. What made me suggest this? What stupid thought clouded my befuddled mind, took control of my lips, and made me bring this whole subject up?
“Yes. I have some new double-edged razors in the cabinet, and we can use Dad’s shaving cream.” I watch her walk purposefully to the linen closet, grab a long towel, throw it around her small shoulders and march into the bathroom. Sitting down on the toilet seat, she turns to her right and stiffly faces the bathtub.
I had had the privilege of forgetting. She, I realize, has been contemplating this all day.
My feet won’t move. No. I don’t want my feet to move. To move my feet means to shear my mother’s head like a lamb. I could easily walk out of the room, but my mom has found her courage and so I will have to as well.
In what seems like a second, I am looking down at the top of my mother’s head. This head isn’t my mom’s. It’s not what I remember, her thick, black curly hair. Instead it is a toughened, pale scalp with long, stringy white and black hair scattered here and there.
I turn on the faucet and let the water run until it is warm. I want to make sure that she isn’t shocked by cold water. It’s hard for her to keep warm as it is these days.
I am at once repulsed and scared to touch her scalp. From above, my mother’s scalp is like that of a person long in the grave. I take the scissors and cut the sparse strands of hair as short as possible. The scalp is so tough and dry looking. It doesn’t feel like my mom at all. The room begins to sway.
Spreading the white foamy shaving cream over her head, my soul becomes an unending cavern where screams of heart-wrenching pain echo. This shouldn’t be. This can’t be. How can I do this? How can I shave my own mother’s head? I come to myself and know that if I were to fall apart, my mother will too. I have to screw up some courage. My mother already has.
The razor runs surprisingly smooth across her head. Over and over, with the hair and against the hair; it is a wordless exercise in a tiny room. I place a warm, wet towel over her head and lovingly massage her scalp. Lotion is applied and the bald scalp is no longer dry, but pliable and has color.
“Oh, that feels so much better!” My mother’s delicate, translucent hands run over her head and she seems to love the revitalized, smooth surface. She stands up like an excited child and scoots over to the bathroom mirror. “I won’t have any problems with my wig anymore and I won’t wake up with my hair falling out. This is wonderful! It tingles!” A rare smile comes to her lips and I return it, feeling drained. I just want her to get that wig on immediately. Even the turban would be better than seeing her bald because of my handiwork. I turn away and begin cleaning up the sink.
I lay in bed now in my parent’s house—my old pink canopy bed that has been with me since I was seven years old. I have gone to college, gotten married to a terrific husband, and have two beautiful boys.
. . . but as I lay in the blessed dark, I wish with all my heart, that I could be seven years old again, watching my mother apply her makeup. She’s sitting at the lighted mirror, her hair full of large curlers. One by one she pulls them softly from her thick hair and carefully runs a soft brush through the curls. She pulls some curls to frame her glowing complexion and large gentle eyes.
Turning to me, in a past long ago, she takes her right hand and cups me under my little chin. She says smiling, “Tell me, what would you like to do on this beautiful, sunny day?”