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Restoration by Just_Me
This is an updated (and very different) version of a story I originally told in "Sarge’s Barber Shop". It’s an odd combination of fiction and fact (I know I said I wouldn’t be doing any more autobiographical things, but this story took an unexpected turn. It turned out very different from what my original plan).
Fair warning, this is not a "feel good" piece. It's sometimes dark, and maybe too intense. I've never written anything like it.
One Friday night my partner and I were watching the sun set over the ocean. It was soul-stirringly beautiful, and peaceful. Mother Nature was really putting on a show with the colors in the sky, and the way the colors reflected on the water just increased the beauty. Everything was perfectly quiet, except for the gulls’ cries and the sound of the waves as they hit the shore. I had a fantasy thought that I would hear the water sizzle when the sun hit it.
Josh and I were surreptitiously holding hands, and both of us often looked around to see if anyone had noticed us. (We are from the south, and come from deeply religious backgrounds. We were still bound by the cultural norms of our past. The idea of being openly gay was completely foreign to us, even though we’d lived in Los Angeles three years. It wasn’t that we wanted to be inhibited, we had never found the key that would unlock the chains that bound us.) Actually, we were talking about that.
"Eric, I sometimes feel evil because I’m gay. Intellectually, I know it’s not wrong, but it’s hard to believe it’s not wrong, if that makes sense." He looked tense. "I’m so messed up. How can I know something and not believe it?" He pushed my hair out of my eyes and looked at me. A tear formed in one eye. "It’s like right now. Watching the sun set over the ocean is so romantic, and I want to hold you, but I just can’t do it in public. I’m sorry. You deserve someone who’s not ashamed."
"I understand, Josh. I want to hold you too, and I can’t."
My phone rang. I whispered, "It’s Mom" (as if she could hear me). Josh immediately let go of my hand. Just the thought of Mom made us feel guilty. I answered, "Hi, Mom. How’s it going?"
She was crying. "Eric, I don’t know how to say this." She broke down.
"Mom! What’s the matter? You’ve got to stop crying and talk to me." Josh gave me an inquisitive look.
"Son, you’ve got to get home. Come as quickly as you can."
"What’s going on, Mom? I can come home, but why?"
"It’s your father. He’s been sick for a long time, but he wouldn’t let me tell you. I hate to put it this bluntly, but if you want to see him alive again, you’d better get here as quickly as you can."
I whispered to Josh. "It’s Dad. He’s dying." My vision blurred. I thought I was going to pass out. Josh wrapped his arms around me. All I could think was, "Thank god he’s here to help me through this." He pulled my head onto his shoulder.
I managed to croak out, "Hang on, Mom." Then I cried for a long time--deep, gut-wrenching sobs. Finally I was able to breath.
I picked up the phone. "Why am I just finding out about this? I’m his son, and I deserved to know."
"You’re right, baby boy, and I told your father that many times, but you know how stubborn he can be. He kept saying, ‘There ain’t no need to worry the boy. I’m Texas-tough and I’m going to beat this cancer’."
"Cancer? Did you say cancer?" I saw tears rolling down Josh’s face. He kissed me on the forehead.
"Yes, son. He’s been fighting it for almost two years. The doctor just called hospice in, and they’re saying about two weeks."
"Is this why you talked me out of coming home the last two years?" The anger in my voice rose. "Don’t answer that. I know it is. You were wrong to do that to me, Mom. Dead wrong!"
The reality of what she’d said hit me. "Oh, my god! Two weeks? I’m going to kill him! Why would he wait that long to let me know?"
I tried to calm down. "I understand Dad acting like this. He’s too stubborn to listen to reason, but I can’t believe you did this to me. How dare you?"
"Eric, I didn’t want to upset Earl. He needs to stay calm, and you know the Bible tells me to submit to my husband. I had no choice but to do what he wanted. We’ll talk about it when you get home."
I wanted to hang up on her, but I had a few final words for her. I left her with the words, "Sure, we’ll talk about how you screwed me out of precious time with my father. We’ll talk about how you betrayed me. We’ll talk about how you didn’t have enough respect for me to let me decide how to deal with things." I stopped talking, trying to figure out what else to say. "I’ve got to go. I need to figure out how to get home. I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve figured out when I’ll be home."
"I love you, son. I really do, and I’m sorry."
"How can you say you love me after what did to me?" I hung up without saying anything else. I knew she needed to hear me say, "I love you," but I couldn’t. In that moment, my anger threatened to consume me. The intense rage was greater than the sorrow.
The anger disappeared when the true realization hit me. I sobbed, "Josh, my dad is going to die. He might be a bastard, but he’s the only father I have." I took a deep breath. "I’ve always been afraid of this day, but somehow thought Dad was too stubborn to ever die."
Although I hate when it happens, my religious background often shows up, and drops a scripture in my mind. It happened then. "I feel like Job must’ve when he said, ‘For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me’."
I looked at the setting sun and screamed at God. "I hate you! You’re going to take Daddy away from me, you sorry bastard!" Then I whispered, "I’m going to lose my father."
Josh was incredible. He held me until I cried myself out. He kept saying, "We’ll get through this, Babe. Hang in there. I’m here for you." Then he kissed me full on the mouth--right there in front of everyone.
I burst out laughing. Once I stopped laughing, I said, "Josh, we were just sitting here talking about how uncomfortable we are with public displays of affection and I think we just made liars out of ourselves. You’ve hugged me, I’ve literally cried on your shoulder and you just kissed me."
He looked startled. "I did, didn’t I? I never dreamed I’d do something like that."
"I’m glad you did. Thank you." I cried some more, and said, "Josh, I’m not ready to deal with this."
Tears were streaming down his face when he said, "I know, Babe. As much as I hate to say it, you’ve got to. It sounds like this is a case of ready or not, here it comes." His love came shining through when he said, "I’ll be here for you, for as long as you need, and in whatever capacity you need me."
I was distracted by the beauty of the setting sun reflecting in the ocean. "Josh, does it strike you as odd that we’re dealing with the ugliness of death in this beautiful, peaceful setting?"
He nodded, and brushed the hair out of my eyes again. Then, as he typically did, Josh got back to the business at hand. "Do you want me to go with you?"
"That’s sweet of you, babe, but not right now. I don’t know how long I’ll be there, and you can’t take that much time off work. Maybe you can come out for the funeral. Mom knows you’re my best friend, and she’ll be OK with it. We just can’t let her know you’re my boyfriend, or she won’t let you in the house."
"I understand that, darling. My mom would be the same way."
Josh and I talked about it, and I decided to drive, despite the need to hurry. Josh wasn’t happy with the decision until I said, "Babe, I need some time to process things. I want time to get over my anger at Mom and Dad, and I have to figure out how to deal with the fact that I’m losing my father." Just the idea of it sent shivers down my spine.
We went home, and I started packing for my trip. A chilling thought struck me when I picked up my hairbrush to put it in the suitcase.
I walked into the bedroom where Josh was pulling the clothes I would need to take. "Josh, I need to ask you something."
"What’s up, Babe?"
"I know you love my long hair. Would you hate me if I cut it?"
"Why would you do that, Babe?"
"Dad has always hated long hair. I don’t want to agitate him in his last days. I feel like I owe it to him."
I could read Josh’s thoughts. "I love his hair!" Then he thought, "He’s a grown man. His father shouldn’t control him like that."
He didn’t say any of that. "If you think it’ll make you feel any better, I’ll support you."
"Thanks, sweetheart. I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but knowing you won’t hate me will help if I decide to get it cut. I’ll think about it while I’m driving, and if it feels right, I’ll stop at a barbershop somewhere. Just fair warning, IF I do get it cut, it’ll be short."
"Eric, you do what’s right for you." He ran his hands through my hair. "How short would you go?"
"I don’t know yet. I don’t even know if I’ll do it. I’m tempted to just march in there with my long hair and tell Dad to go jump in a creek. After all, I’m an adult, and I have the right to wear my hair any way I damn well please." I sighed, "To answer your question though I’ve already thought about a few different cuts, and I just don’t know."
"Well, what have you thought about? Basic training cut? Flattop? Just short?"
"Well, you hit on two of them. Dad normally kept me in short back and sides, and I don’t want that again. Too many bad memories. My first thought was a flattop like Dad wears, and then I thought about an induction cut. I just don’t know."
"We’ll deal with it, whatever you decide. Do what you have to. Honestly, Babe, I will be OK with it." He grinned and caressed my hair. "Who knows, having my own soldier boy might turn me on."
I sighed. "I don’t even know why I’m thinking about it. I’ve always hated having short hair, and Dad never cared about what I thought. His only thoughts were about what his superiors would think. Why should I care what he thinks, when he never considered my feelings?"
"Eric, don’t try to fool me. You love the man. There’s aspects of him that you justifiably don’t like, but you love the man."
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I knew Josh was right. "Babe, I've spent almost as much time hating him as I have loving him. However, in the final analysis, the love wins. He has a lot of flaws, but he's still my dad and I love him."
"Eric, what you just said shows me what kind of person you are. I respect and admire you so much. You know I love you, right?"
"Of course, I do, Babe." I kissed him. "God, I’m going to miss you." One kiss led to another kiss, and I wound up delaying my departure for a while. Our bodies said things to one another that we couldn’t say with our voices.
I was missing Josh before I got out of the driveway. I cried so hard that I couldn’t see and I don’t know how I managed to get out of LA.
As I drove across the country I cried some more. I ranted. I cursed a god I no longer believed in for doing this to my father, and then I wanted to pray to him to help my father.
I also thought about my relationship with Dad. I realized I had focused so much on the short haircuts he had inflicted on me that I hadn’t given him enough credit for all the right things he’d done for me. He had been a good father. I was able to start letting the bitterness go when I thought, "Eric, you couldn’t see the forest for the trees. You let one thing override everything else. He really did the best he could. Sure, he made some mistakes, but overall, he was OK, and you have no doubt that he loved you."
Then I did what I typically do. I started feeling guilty for not recognizing it sooner.
I continued to think about whether to get my hair cut or not. I knew I was twenty-two, and old enough to do what I wanted with my hair, but it felt like it would be disrespectful to go see Dad with hair hanging past my shoulders. I went back and forth. One minute I would think, "I’m going to do it." The next minute I’d say, "Eric, that’s stupid. Don’t do it."
I argued with myself all the way across the wearisome deserts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and most of Texas. My god, it was boring. I got tired of the interstate, and started taking some country roads, just to give myself some variety. I was in a rural area when I noticed a sign that said, "Sarge’s Barber Shop". I thought, "Eric, stop arguing with yourself and just do it." I turned around and pulled into the shop. Then I thought, "Why here?" A quick look at the shop made me say, "I don’t know why here, but maybe it’s just the fact that it looks like a real barbershop." I thought some more. "It’s probably the name. I’d assume a shop with the name ‘Sarge’ in it means the barber has a military background. He should be able to give me a haircut that’ll make Dad happy."
Whatever the correct answer was, I finally knew I was going to do it. I ran my fingers through my hair and thought, "Oh, my god. My hair’s going to be short enough to please Dad in a few minutes."
My next thought was, "Eric, maybe you’ve missed having short hair, and you want it short again." I dismissed that thought.
I looked through the window as I walked up. It was a typical shop, just like dozens I’d been in as the army moved us around the world. It had three barber chairs with red leather, a row of seats for clients to sit in and a TV sitting in a corner. It was nothing exciting, but it felt familiar, and maybe even comfortable. The barber was sitting in a chair smoking a cigar and looking bored. He definitely fulfilled my image of what a barber should look like: white tunic with a comb sticking out of the pocket, a cantankerous look and a head full of grey hair that was peeled short. I grinned. "Dad would’ve liked this barber. He meets both of Dad’s requirements for a good barber. I wish I had a dollar for every time he said, ‘Don’t ever trust a barber with long hair’ and ‘Never let a man cut your hair if he doesn’t have some grey in his beard’."
I started crying. I didn’t know if I was crying because I’d thought of Dad, or if I was crying because I was going to lose my beautiful hair. I really didn’t want to cut my hair, but it felt right like the right decision. I got myself under control and walked in.
The barber almost jumped out of his skin when the door bell jangled. I froze when I got in the door. I couldn’t move while the barber obviously sized me up. The look in his eyes told me he was itching to get his clippers in my hair. It took him awhile to look past the hair, and see me. My first thought was, "I don’t wanna look like a wimp in front of this man. I hope he can’t tell I’ve been crying."
His only word was a brusque, "Haircut?’"
"I don’t know much about cutting long hair. What kinda cut are you wanting?"
I started crying. It took a while to get myself under control.
I don’t guess I’ll ever forget his next words. "Son, it’s pretty damned obvious that something’s tormenting you something fierce. Wanna tell me about it?" The tender words coming out of the tough-looking man touched my heart.
I shook my head and said, "No sir," but continued talking despite what I’d said. Words poured out of my mouth, as fast as I could think of them.
"Sir, I live in California, and I got a call telling me to come home if I wanted to see Dad before he died. I didn’t even know he was sick, and he’s so young. He’s only fifty-five. Anyway, he didn’t want me to worry, so he told Mom not to tell me. She didn’t, and I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive either of them for that. Their betrayal and Dad’s sickness were a huge shock."
"Dad is a retired colonel, and he always kept my hair really short. He harped all the time about me not embarrassing him with long hair. When I went to California, I let my hair grow, and it hasn’t been cut since then. I know Dad would be ashamed to see me looking like this. Can you clean me up, so I can face him?"
The barber looked really sad. "Son, I’m really sorry you’re having to face this. That’s a lot to handle, and from my perspective, your parents were both wrong." He stopped talking. "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not my place to judge. No matter what they did though, it’s tough losing a parent at any age, and you’re mighty young to have to deal with it. Like I said, I’m really sorry you’re having to deal with this."
His understanding almost made me start crying again. He smiled. "I can’t cut your damned hair when you’re way over there." He wiped the seat of his chair off with the cape. "Have a seat, and I’ll be happy to cut your hair. I hope it’ll help make you feel a little better. Do you want it over the ears, or just some length off?"
"No, sir. I stopped here because your shop looked like it might have a barber who knew how to give what Dad called a real haircut. Can you help me out? I want his final sight of me to be something he can be proud of."
He patted me on the shoulder. "I know you’re dad will appreciate you showing up with a decent haircut. I’m a retired first sergeant, and I know how important it is to military men for the sons to look sharp."
He seemed to be searching for something to say, and I was surprised when he said, "Oh crap, I forgot I had a cigar in my mouth. Give me a second to put it in an ashtray."
I said, "Don’t do it on my account. Dad smokes cigars, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing someone else smoke them. Maybe I like them because it reminds me of home. It makes me feel like I’m around him."
He offered me a cigar, and I turned him down. "No, sir. I’ve never picked up the habit."
"I’m glad to hear that. It really is a disgusting habit." He put the cape on me. "Now, back to the subject of your hair. How short do you want to go? Taper? Whitewalls? A high and tight? I’ll be happy to help you out with any of those."
"Sir, I want the same haircut Dad always had; a really short flattop. It’s probably a stupid question, but do you know how to do those?’"
He nodded. "I’ve done thousands of them. In fact, I have a couple of customers who are in here every week for one." He ran a comb through my hair. "Your thick hair will make a marvelous flattop, but I’m sure your dad would be happy with something a little less extreme. Are you sure you want a flattop? It’s a big change, and it’ll be years before your hair’ll be this long again."
I didn’t hesitate. ‘Yes, sir. It’s what I want. Well, maybe it’s not what I want, but it’s what I need. I’ve let Dad down in many ways, and I need him to be happy when he sees me. I can’t send him to his grave with images of me looking like this in his head."
"All right, let’s get it done.’"
I figured the old man would grab the clippers and drive them over my head, but he didn’t. He started cutting my hair with scissors, and he wasn’t cutting much. I thought, "What the hell? Is he trying to give me time to change my mind?"
I stopped him. "Sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but would you just take the clippers to it? I’m anxious to get this done, and get back on the road. I don’t know how much time he has left, and I want to get there in time to see him."
That seemed to make the barber happy (I guess he was Sarge, but he never introduced himself to me.) Anyway, He picked up the clippers and shoved my head forward. I held my breath and gripped the chair arms because I knew what was coming. I’d experienced it many times, and I was dreading it. I really didn’t want this haircut, but had no doubt it was the right thing for me to do.
Sarge started the serious business of getting rid of years worth of hair.
The first pass with the clippers almost made me sick. I thought about all the time I’d spent letting it grow out, and what a pain it was during that stage when I looked like a porcupine because my hair wouldn’t lay down. I thought about Josh, and how much he enjoyed playing with my hair.
After the first wave of emotions, I started relaxing and paying attention to what was going on. Big chunks of hair were falling. All the length on the back and sides fell to the floor and skin started showing. Then he started on the top. It felt like he’d put a guard on the clippers and was going over my whole head to get rid of all the length.
It was obvious that this wasn’t his first rodeo with a pair of clippers. Sarge knew what he was doing.
I laughed. Sarge turned the clippers off. "What made you laugh? Not many young men laugh when they’re getting a haircut like this for the first time."
"Oh, believe me, this is not my first time, but it is the first time in a long time."
I laughed again. "I just thought about how much Dad would enjoy seeing someone other than me get this haircut, and how mad he’d be if he knew I was the one getting this haircut. I don’t think he would’ve ever forgiven me if I’d walked in his house looking like this."
"Well, I imagine he’d probably forgiven you--eventually--but he would’ve been mighty damned pissed seeing you look like this...at least if he’s like most military men I know. Military folks don’t have much patience with men who have long hair."
"Sir, that’s an understatement if I’ve ever heard one, and my father is military to the bone!"
I had been driving for more than twenty hours by that time Sarge started cutting my hair, and after the terror of the first few moments I almost fell asleep a few times. I remember some parts of the haircut, and I don’t remember other parts.
I remember watching a sideburn fall off. I looked at it as it fell. Then I definitely remember when he started making the top flat. When he laid the comb on the top of my head and made the first pass with the clippers I thought, "Dear god, I didn’t think this through. What if I look like Dad?" Then I faded into a semi-conscious state. The sound of clippers cutting my hair calmed my nerves, and the repetitive motion of the clippers going over the comb almost put me in a trance. The familiar vibration of the clippers shaving the side was strangely comforting. I looked at the chairs in the waiting area, almost expecting Dad to be sitting there, nodding approvingly. The sharp tang of Sarge’s cigar just increased the sense that Dad was with me.
Sarge took a break to oil the clippers and I came out of my daze. "I kinda felt sorry for you. You’re working mighty hard to get all the hair peeled off my head."
He gave a snort that sorta sounded like a laugh. "Believe me, getting to mow you down is a pleasure."
"Thank you, sir. I have to say, you’re doing it right. I’ve been in many barbershops, and I’ve never had anyone take more care with a haircut than you are. I know Dad will be happy. Thanks for the opportunity to do this last thing for him."
Sarge gave a sniff that sounded suspiciously emotional. He sounded gruff when he said, "It’s nice when someone appreciates my expertise, and it’s a pleasure to help you out." Then he sniffed again, and wiped his eyes.
I thought Sarge had finished, but he went over the whole thing again. I’m assuming he wanted to make sure every hair was exactly the correct length.
He finished up, took the cape off, and said, "Take a look at that, and see if it meets with your approval."
I walked toward the mirror. My first thought was, "Oh dear Jesus. Josh is going to kill me." My first words were, "I forgot what my ears look like!" Sarge grinned. I looked directly into Sarge’s eyes. "I’d forgotten what I looked like. Thanks for helping me find myself again. I think Dad’ll be proud of me."
I teared up again when Sarge said, "I know he’ll be proud of you, and so am I!" I swear, Sarge wiped a tear from the corner of both eyes when he said that.
I looked at my hair again, and it looked a lot better than I had anticipated. In fact, I thought it looked good--except for the white skin on the sides of my head. I shivered when I rubbed the bristly sides, and was thrilled when I patted the top. Sarge looked elated when I said, "Damn! That looks good. It’s perfect. Thank you."
I paid him, and started to leave. He shook my hand, and then put a hand on my shoulder. He looked at me, as if checking out his work. "Walk out that door knowing any colonel would be proud to call you his son."
I walked out the door thinking how surprised I was by how kind and compassionate Sarge had been. I shook my head in disbelief. I thought, "He looks like a crusty old booger, and when I first saw him I would’ve never imagined he had that kind of compassion in him." I shook my head again, and said out loud, "That old coot has a heart of gold."
I shook my head yet again, to try to adjust to the fact that no hair moved.
I sent Josh a text. "The deed is done. Do u want a pic?"
He replied, "By ‘deed’ I’m assuming u mean haircut?"
"That’s what I mean."
I got a text back. It was simple. "No." I started to reply, and saw he was still typing. A series of texts came in, one after the other. "No, unless u want me 2 c it." "Yes...maybe" "No, I want 2 c u live and in person."
I responded, "Make up ur damn mind, u silly goose! [:-)"
"No. It’s a definite no!"
"Yes, my final answer is no. I don’t want 2 c ur haircut until I c u."
I’ll have to admit I was a little disappointed. I wanted to share it with him--and maybe I wanted to give him time to get used to it before he actually saw me.
His next text was typical Josh. He always cuts straight to the chase. "How do u feel about it?"
I responded, "Leave it 2 u 2 go there. I regret cutting my hair, but I don't regret it. It’s illogical, but it's how I feel."
"It makes perfect sense, Babe. I'm proud of u for doing what u think is right. Curiosity is killing me though. What haircut did u wind up with?"
"I'm not going to tell u. If u don't want 2 c me, u can't find out."
"Babe, u r killing me. :-( Please tell me!"
"Nope! Not gonna. U r gonna have to wonder."
"Whatever u decided on, I'm looking forward 2 seeing my soldier boy ;-)."
That made me cry. "How did I get lucky enough to find a wonderful man like u?"
"U were lucky, weren't u? LOL! Now get on the road, and let me know when you’ve made it."
I drove almost without stopping from Los Angeles to Fort Benning. I felt too drained (emotionally and physically) to even get out of the car by the time I got to Mom and Dad’s. My feelings were all over the place and I sat in the car trying to pull myself together. I said out loud, "Screw it, Eric. You’re not getting anywhere sitting out here. Get in there, and start dealing with what you have to deal with."
Dad’s first words were, "Thank god you look like a decent human being. I was afraid you’d let your hair grow out." He looked horrified, and I couldn’t figure out why. He continued. "I’m sorry I said that, son."
"Don’t worry, Dad. I’m a colonel’s son and I know military protocol. I think you know I’ve always hated having my head peeled, but I couldn’t embarrass you by showing up with a lot of hair on my head, no matter how I felt about it."
I started to say something else, and he cut me off.
"Eric I really need to talk to you seriously. I made some major mistakes as you were growing up and I need to own up to it. Your haircuts are one of the things I regret."
"Dad we don't need to get into that. You need to conserve your energy."
"Son, I'm going to be dead soon, and a twenty minute conversation isn't going to get me there any sooner, and if it does, it won't mean a lot in the grand scheme of things."
"Come on, Dad. I've always known you loved me, and I hope you know I've always loved you. That's all that needs to be said."
"I'm not going to my grave with things unresolved between the two of us. I don't want you hating me for the rest of your life."
"What's the point? I know you loved me, and rehashing old stuff isn't going to change a thing."
"Maybe it'll help heal the resentment you feel toward me."
I tried to stop him. He stopped me instead. "I need to say this. Your resentment is justified. I was wrong, and you deserve to get to put me in my place. Go ahead. I promise there'll be no hard feelings, and it would probably make me feel better if you lambasted me."
I grimaced. "You're a stubborn old coot, just in case you didn't know it. I don't need to do this."
"Yes, I am, but that’s not the point here. Please honor a dying man's wish. I need to do it, and you need it too, even if you don't know it."
I knew how stubborn he was, and knew I couldn’t stop him, but I tried. "Dad, I’m completely exhausted. I haven’t slept for more than two days and I need to rest before we get into this. Anyway, I really don't know what you want to talk about. Other than you making me keep my hair too short, I don't have many complaints. You were a good father most of the time. Sure you grounded me, but I normally deserved it. I don't even mind the spankings I got. They taught me that my actions have consequences."
He ignored me, and kept talking. "I have a bunch I need to say, and the forced haircuts are a part of what I want to talk to you about. I really was an ass about your hair as you were growing up. I didn’t realize it then, but I do now. I'm sorry I was so blind and so selfish that I didn't realize what I was doing to you. I would’ve never deliberately hurt you, but in my arrogance, I hurt you greatly. I was self-centered, and never considered your feelings--and I refused to listen when you tried to talk to me about it. That’s what makes my actions so reprehensible. I won’t ask you to forgive me, since there’s no excuse for my behavior except my own egotistical desires." He paused. "Honestly compels me to admit I didn’t want to hear what you were saying, since it conflicted with what I thought was right for you--no, that’s a lie. I was doing what I thought was right for me. I wish I could go back in time and change it. I’d gladly tell my commanders to go fly a kite."
I shrugged. "It’s ok, Dad. I resented it at the time, but I understand now. I really do."
"Thanks for saying that, Eric. Whether you understand or not doesn’t change my need to tell you how sorry I am. I also need to apologize for always putting the army ahead of my family. The military does require a lot of its families, but there were things I could've done to make your journey easier."
I smirked. "I'll have to admit that I used to say that although you went to church with us, you never worshiped God. You worshiped the army."
"That's a very astute observation, and I can't say you're wrong, may God forgive me." He seemed to be listening to an inner voice. "I really wish you would tell me how it affected you. I need to know."
I let my exhaustion overtake my natural caution. I would’ve never said the things I said if I hadn’t been so tired.
"If you want me to tell you, I’ll tell you." I let him have it. I knew I would regret it later, but couldn’t seem to hold it back. "You’re right. The extreme haircuts were what I resented the most. No, that's not true. I resented the fact that all choice was taken from me. I would like to think I would’ve agreed to keep my hair cut for you if you’d just explained why it was important to you, and asked, instead of demanding. I probably would've done something a little more stylish that white walls, but I would've kept it short to keep your commander happy. I just didn't have the option." I paused to gather my thoughts. "You never asked if I would be willing to keep my hair peeled so you could advance your career. You forced me, with no explanation or apology. You demanded more of me than any other colonel expected from their sons--or for that matter, any general."
He paused. "I know saying I'm sorry doesn't help, but I'm truly sorry. You’re right. I only thought about myself, and that's the worst mistake a patent can make."
I ignored him, and kept firing my ammunition. "I guess I do have one more complaint. Sometimes--no, make that often--you didn’t see me as a son. I was another soldier in your eyes." I kept going. "I used to wish I had the nerve to say, 'I’m NOT in the army. I never swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, but you treat me like I’d sworn that oath. I am NOT a soldier!" Memories came flooding in. "Do you remember when I was little and had to salute you before I could hug you? I know everyone thought it was cute. I guess I loved the attention it got me, but hated the fact that I couldn’t just run to Daddy."
He frowned. "I never thought about it that way. That would be very painful to a child, and I was an arrogant ass to insist on it. I have no real justification, but I do remember thinking at the time you would follow in my footsteps, and that I was preparing you for it. Once again, I was wrong."
I had finished berating him. "Now it’s my turn to apologize to you. The greatest regret of my life is the fact that I can't be the son you dreamed of having, the son you wanted and deserved. I can't be a soldier, no matter how hard I try. The sound of the bugle doesn't stir my heart like it does yours. I'm an artist, writer and musician. God knows I’ve tried to replace my artist's heart with the heart of a warrior, but it’s not possible." I wiped some tears from my eyes. With simple directness, I said, "I really need you to know I'm sorry I failed you. "
Dad looked shocked, and then he cried so hard he was sobbing. "Sweet Jesus, Eric. I never wanted you to change who you are. I did want you to toughen up, because the world can be cruel, but I never wanted you to change who you are. Sure, I thought you’d follow me into the army, but I never really cared when you didn’t. Do you really think I’m disappointed in who you are?"
I couldn't lie to him in that moment. "Yes, sir. I do."
He put his arms out. "Come here, son." We hugged a long time. Then he said, "If there’s one thing I need you to know and remember about me, it’s this. I have ALWAYS been proud of you, and I will be proud of you throughout all eternity."
Needless to say, we both cried at that point.
After the tears had abated, I said, "Ok, Dad. You’ve got to have your say. Now that we've done that, I’m going to have my say. While I was driving, I spent a lot of time thinking about the happy memories I have of times we spent together." Then I joked. "Yes, I remember times with you that didn't involve a visit to the barbershop."
He laughed, and it was good to see his smile.
"Now we're going to remember those good times. Move over." I laid beside him and told him all the special memories I had. I told him how much I admired his willingness to help those in need. "I don't think you ever met a person with a sad story that you didn't help in some way."
We moved on to other memories and laughed at stupid antics we'd both pulled.
I got serious again. "Dad, I have one more thing I really need to tell you."
He laughed. "Can my heart stand it? Remember, I’m dying."
"Like you said, a little conversation isn’t going to put you in the grave any earlier." Then I said, "The things I remember most about you are the times you wrapped me in a hug and held me while I cried. Every time I cried because I had a big disappointment, or someone I loved died, you held me. I don't know if I've ever told you how much that meant to me, and I don't know if I would've made it through some of those times if you hadn't held me."
His eyes glistened with unshed tears. "Son, every tear you shed was like a knife in my heart. I always wanted to take the pain away from you."
I had tears in my eyes too. "You might not have been able to take the hurt, but you made it bearable."
We were both too emotional to talk after that.
I heard a soft snore and looked at him. He was asleep, but he had a smile on his face. I thought for a while, and a scripture came to my mind. "And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten" I whispered in Dad’s ear, "Thanks for insisting we restore the years. The restoration is complete. I love you, you stubborn old buzzard." I turned on my side, and put my arm around his chest. Then I put my head on his chest and laid there like a little boy, listening to his heart until I fell asleep.
I woke up seconds before he did, and he started talking, as if we had never stopped. "Eric, you know we have a tradition in the family of the oldest son delivering a eulogy. Don't let anyone force you into it if you don't want to. It’s a hard task, and I don’t want you suffering through it. I want you to do what's right for you. I would be honored if you do it, but I don’t need you to. Just being able to call you my son is honor enough." He had a look on his face that I’d never seen before. Then he said, "If you decide to do it, I can tell you from experience that it’ll be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do."
I thought a minute. "Dad, I don't think I want anyone else to speak for the family. I can do it." I went from somber to carefree, and fell into the natural teasing way we had always shared. "After all, who can say more mean things about you than I can?"
He grinned. In a whiny voice that shook with suppressed laughter he said, "Geez, Eric, can't you find a few nice things to say about me? If not, lie your ass off and make something up. Try to make me sound good. After all, you're a writer, so it should be easy for you."
"Ok, if you want me to lie and tell them you were a teddy bear I can do that. It’ll probably be a short eulogy though. God will send lightning bolts my way to punish me for telling such big whoppers."
He laughed. "I guess I'm going to have to get up off my deathbed and whip your butt to teach you how to respect your elders."
I got serious again. "Dad, could you cool it with the deathbed references. That’s hard for me to deal with."
"Son, it’s not going to change the facts. I’m dying. It’s that simple. Why not get a laugh or two out of it while we can?"
I didn't leave Dad's room from the time I got there until the time he passed away, except to go to the bathroom or take a call from Josh. Well, I did leave one other time. I took a busybody church lady outside and cussed her out.
She got to Mom and Dad’s soon after I did, and refused to leave me alone with Dad. I couldn’t figure out why. She'd leave the room if someone else was in there with me, but she'd come scurrying (or should I say waddling) if she saw I was there alone with him. She even spent the night in Dad’s room, sleeping in a chair by his bed.
I didn't want to make a scene. She was Mom’s best friend, so I tried to hold my frustration in. I finally called her outside. I tried to be nice. "Sister Cleo, Dad and I need some time alone. Would you please let us enjoy our time together?"
She snarled at me. "I'm not going to leave that wonderful man alone with a pervert like you. Who knows what you might do to him?"
I literally saw red. I had my fist balled up and was ready to hit her before sanity set in (in case you're wondering, I'm not a violent person. That's the only time I've ever came close to hitting someone, much less a woman, and especially an older woman.) "You F-Ing bitch! How dare you say something like that? That's my father, and I love and respect him! Please leave now."
She shook her head. I screamed, "Get your ass out of here, and don't come back unless you want me to beat you."
She obviously thought she had a trump card, and she played it. "Hmph! We'll see what your mother has to say about that!"
My fist came up again. "Bitch, listen, and listen well. I will probably kill you if you dare say one word to Mom about this. I might go to jail, but it'll be worth it." I glared, and then shook my head in disgust. "You must be one of Satan's prized possessions, because no one but him could imagine such a despicable thing. What you just said is the most wicked thing I’ve ever heard."
She looked at me, seemingly smug in her self-righteousness. I said, "I hope you know it would kill Mom if you did something like that, you heartless bitch. Would you really be evil enough to go to a woman who's watching her husband die with such a vile accusation? If so, you're the lowest scumbag I've ever heard of. Get your ass out of here now, and I'd better not see you again--here or at the funeral. Got it?"
I had to laugh when she said, "I'll be praying for your deliverance from the demon of homosexuality and for the salvation of your soul."
Then I blew a gasket. "You bitch! how do you even know if I'm gay? Have you asked me, or have you been listening to gossip? What does the Bible say about gossiping? Let me help you out with that." I quoted about ten scriptures to her. She walked away while I was still giving her chapter and verse.
I tried to calm down before I went in the house, but Dad could tell I was agitated. "What's the matter son?"
"Oh, nothing major. I just had some words with Sister Cleo and I'm still mad."
He cackled. "Oh, she got to you too? She's been a thorn in my flesh since the day we met her. She's an evil bitch. Forget about her."
Every day Dad got a little weaker, but we still had fun, and talked a lot.
Dad motioned for me to come to his side. He was so weak he could only whisper. "Eric, the end is near. I don't want to be buried without a decent haircut. Will you call my barber and see if he'll come give me a final haircut?"
The barber came to the house, even though Dad was too weak to sit up the barber somehow managed to cut Dad's hair. I wanted to have a last father/son haircut with Dad, so I pulled a chair into the bedroom and got a haircut too. Dad didn't say much, but he smiled the whole time I was getting my hair cut.
He went into a coma that night and the next day he was gone.
I was holding his hand when he died. (I had never held his hand. I wondered what he would think about the idea.) Dad didn't struggle. I had my fingers on his neck, checking his pulse when his heart stopped. One second it was beating strong, and the next there were no more heartbeats. There were no final flutters, his heart just stopped. I waited for the next breath and it never came. I thought, "That’s just like Dad."
It felt like he was standing there, and I thought I heard his voice. "If you've gotta do something, don't lallygag! Just do it."
I held it together for the next hour or so. I felt like I needed to be strong for Mom, my sister and nieces. I helped them through the first bout of grief and then settled into the business end of a death. I notified hospice. Then I called the chaplain, a few family members and the funeral home.
I sent Josh a text. "Dad's gone. I'll call as soon as I can. Dealing with business now. I love you."
The hardest part for me was when the funeral home came to pick up Dad's body. I followed the gurney outside, and watched as Dad was put into the hearse. As they drove away, I gave the sharpest salute I had ever given and held it until the hearse was out of sight.
I couldn't help it. When the hearse rounded the corner I sobbed, "DDAADDDDYYY! Oh my god, Daddy! I love you and will always miss you!"
The finality of Dad's death hit me in that moment and I absolutely lost it. I bent over and tried to pull myself into a ball. A primeval sound came out of me, and it was a sound I'd never made before. The closest I can come to describing it is that it was some sort of keening. At some point my knees buckled. Holding my head up seemed to take too much effort so I put my hands on the porch and let my head touch the floor. I probably looked like a strange beast, crouched there. The wild sounds coming out of me just increased the animal imagery. Grief that couldn't be expressed came out sounding like howls mixed with gut-wrenching sobs.
I have never felt more disconsolate. The pain was overwhelming and I thought I would die from it. My heart literally hurt.
With perfect timing, my phone rang. It was Josh. It seemed he had known I would need him in that moment.
Josh caught the next plane out and was with me not long after Dad's death. I was glad no one was around when he came to the door. He hugged me, and kissed me. I was a little uncomfortable when he stepped back to look at me. All I could think was, "Oh crap, he’s going to hate my hair."
His reaction surprised me. He hugged me again and reached out and rubbed my head. "Holy s**t. I thought you were hot with long hair, but Babe, you’re HOT! I can’t wait to get my hands on you."
Later that night he snuck up behind me and whispered, "Hey, handsome. If I'd known you were going to look this good with short hair you would've been in a barbershop a long time ago."
I excused myself from the family as quickly as I could, using the excuse that I needed time to compose Dad's eulogy and that Josh’s hotel room was the only quiet place available. We walked in the room and before the door was shut, Josh had one arm around my waist, another on my head and his lips on mine. He broke the kiss. "Are you ok?"
"I am now that I’m alone with you. Thanks for coming." He kissed me again, and I found out that Josh is very attracted to guys with short hair, or at least he was turned on by me with short hair. He couldn't keep his hands off my head, and I enjoyed his reaction.
I did work on the eulogy, but most of our time was spent in other activities.
The night before the funeral Mom said she had some things she needed to talk to me about, and asked me to meet her in her room.
I had been civil with Mom the whole time I was there, but I had not been loving. That night I took the first step toward forgiving her, and held her hand. She looked at me, and said, "I have a few things I’d really like to say to you. First, I want to thank you for getting your haircut before you came. I don’t believe for a minute you’ve kept it short since you’ve been gone. In fact, I’d be surprised if you’ve had more than three haircuts in the last three years."
I looked sheepish. "Mom, you’d be right about that."
"Well, thank you. It meant a lot to your father. He told me that it showed you loved and respected him."
I shed a few tears.
Mom kept talking. "I also want to thank you for agreeing to do the eulogy. I can only imagine how hard that’s going to be, but know I’m proud of you, and that your father was proud when you said you’d do it. I will be praying for you the whole time you’re speaking." She took a deep breath. "Son, you’ve never said anything about it, and I’m assuming it’s out of respect for my beliefs, but a mother knows things. I don’t think you were born that way, but I’ve known since you were a kid that you were tempted to be gay. You know how I feel about that. Because of what the Bible teaches, I can’t agree with it, but know this, I will always love you."
I was flabbergasted, but I hugged her. "Mom, you’re right. I’ve known since I was very little that I’m attracted to men. I feel like I was born gay, and that’s why I’ve left God and the church. I don’t have any respect for a god who would create a gay man, and then turn around and say the man deserves to be stoned for being the way god made him. That doesn’t sound very loving to me."
"I don’t know the answer to things like that, but there’s one more thing I need to say. I’m not ready to introduce him as my son-in-law, but I believe Josh is a good man, and it’s obvious he loves you. If you can’t beat this gay thing, it will give me some comfort knowing you have someone who loves you, and will take good care of you. If you decide to marry him, I’ll come to the wedding, and be happy for you. I’ll still worry about your immortal soul. I’ll fear you’ll burn in Hell but I’ll be happy for you in that moment."
She surprised me more. "You’ll probably never be accepted in our community, but this will always be your home anytime you want to come here, and Josh will be welcome. If you two would be comfortable having me around, I’d love to come see Los Angeles, and see how you two live."
"Mom, can I call Josh in here, and you tell him what you just told me?"
The next day was tough, and it got tougher. I had the biggest test of my life when the chaplain and I walked into the post chapel to start the funeral. A lady I didn't know caught my arm and hissed, "I think it's disgraceful that your mother is letting you participate in this service. We all know you're living in sin."
I wanted to explode, but managed to keep my composure. I looked at her and very softly said, "Jesus said, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone'." I managed a fake smile. "For your information, Mom didn't ask me to deliver the eulogy. My father wanted me to. If you don't like it, talk to him."
I didn't care who saw me, or what they thought. I held Josh's hand while the chaplain conducted his portion of the funeral service. When it came time to deliver the eulogy I looked primarily at Josh. He was my source of strength that day.
I was proud of the eulogy I delivered. The audience laughed and cried with me as I talked about Dad’s good points, and fussed about his stubbornness. I spoke about some of the life lessons I’d learned from him. I got a lot of laughter when I said, "As most of you know, Dad’s favorite scripture was, ‘Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?’ He made sure I could quote that scripture." I rubbed my head. "As you can see, I learned it well."
I held up well until I told how Dad had always been there to hold me when I cried. I hadn’t planned on saying it, but I quietly said, "I wish he was here to hold me as I mourn his death."
I almost lost it, and had to pause to get my emotions under control.
Despite the fact that Dad had absolved me from the responsibility of acting in a military fashion, I chose to honor his legacy. I stood at the head of his casket with military bearing, a crisp flattop and looking as sharp as I possibly could while I greeted the generals, colonels and other dignitaries as they passed the casket. Once the final guest walked by I turned to the casket and looked at Dad. He looked at peace laying there in his dress blues and a perfectly cut flattop. I executed a flawless military salute, did an about face and walked out.
We went to the cemetery, and when the bugler started playing "Taps" I stood up and did another perfectly executed salute. The old, haunting melody sent tears streamed down my face. When the final note faded away I walked to the casket and put my tear-stained hand on it. "Old guy, I obviously lied to you. The sound of the bugle does stir my heart."
The whole time I was performing all the rituals of grief I was desperately longing to be alone with Josh. The knowledge that I would be in his arms that night (with Mom’s blessing) was the only thing that allowed me to keep it together.
It was a relief to get in the car and start back to LA. Getting away from death and the military environment took a great load off my shoulders. Josh couldn’t keep his hands off my head and was talkative for a while. He told me how proud he was of the way I had conducted myself, how beautiful my eulogy had been and relating little details he had noticed that I hadn’t. Then we talked about the country we were driving through, and started making plans for what we were going to do when we got home. Somewhere in the middle of Louisiana he got quiet. After several miles of silence he cleared his throat a few times.
I finally said, "Babe, it’s obvious you’re working yourself up to say something. What is it?"
He ducked his head and said, "I was trying to figure out a way to ask if you’d be turned on if I got a short haircut."
If anyone wants to know what parts of this story are fact and what’s fiction, almost everything from the time Eric gets to his parents’ home through the funeral and cemetery are an accurate portrayal of what I experienced when my father passed away last year. Dad and I did restore our relationship, and we did get matching haircuts the day before he died (neither of us had enough hair for a flattop, but we were buzzed down).
There are two exceptions to the accuracy of the latter part of the story. Mom didn’t grant me acceptance, and my partner wasn’t there with me.