May 26, 2006 at 12:47 pm (Uncategorized)

Yesterday Andrew got his first haircut.

“What?” I can imagine you asking, since I’ve already heard similar shocked responses about Andrew’s hair about 500 times in the past year. “You waited until your son was almost two and a half before cutting his hair?”

Yes. We did. And yes, he got mistaken for a girl every time we left the house. His tousled mop of curls was also a nightmare to shampoo and comb. What propelled us to sit Andrew in the barber chair yesterday was the realization that if his hair was to stay long, we’d need to deep condition it. It’s a good day when I get to wash my hair, much less take a shower. Let’s just say that I wasn’t about to start leaving Pantene conditioner in my toddler’s hair while he shrieked and flailed in the tub.

I had been agitating for his haircut for over a year. I was tired of people telling me how cute my little girl was. I was surprised by my discomfort. I have never approved of the gender-ification of babies and toddlers. Little ones are little ones, I always said, and I hate the sharp divide in toy stores and society at large. Everything pink and fluffy is for girls; everything blue and treaded is for boys. Andrew has always been wonderfully eclectic in his interests. His favorite things in life are motorized–cars, trucks, airplanes, and construction equipment. He can recognize and name the “rapid intervention vehicle” and the “articulated rescue vehicle” in his picture books. He knew what a Concorde was before he could crawl. Yet at the same time, he loves ballet, my old dolls, and the toy kitchen from his Grandpas Steve and Don. His favorite color today is hot pink, but last week it was royal blue. I like this about him; it speaks to a promising future as a nonconformist. Nevertheless, I was still concerned about him being confused about being called a girl all the time. I couldn’t explain the anxiety that circulated around in me, but it was there. Andrew, of course, didn’t seem bothered by it at all; in fact, I doubt he ever noticed.

Jay loved Andrew’s hair long. When I pressed him on the topic, he just said, “I like it long.” I tried to correlate his resistance at cutting his son’s hair with his desire to hold on to Andrew’s babyhood. “Are you having a hard time letting go of this part of his life?” I asked. “No, I just like it long,” he replied. One of the most annoying and wonderful things about my husband is his capacity not to dwell at deeper levels. By deeper I don’t necessarily mean more significant, but instead of the darker, subterranean realm. He takes people at face value and doesn’t ever seem to brood about the possibility that contradictions lurk within him and others. I, on the other hand, am always looking for the hidden, unpleasant meaning behind every seemingly innocuous reality. He can be relentlessly cheerful; I can be willfully pessimistic. Somehow, after nearly nine years of marriage, we haven’t killed each other but have instead achieved a weird balance.

There was a lot to love about Andrew’s long hair. It was a sumptuous, silky blond, completely unlike Jay’s dark brown hair or my red. Andrew’s hair was also curly, and with the proper amount of humidity in the air, it formed perfect ringlets. He looked like Shirley Temple. When we went recently to Thailand, which has an average humidity of around 2000 percent, Andrew was the spitting image of a cherub, with his halo of curls framing his face and spilling down his back. People treated him like a small god. Strangers on the street wanted to caress those golden, bouncy curls. Back in dry Montana, he just looked like a rock star. But, he was getting split ends, and his tresses were ratty, not heavenly, on most days. We made the appointment with Jay’s barber.

We were worried that Andrew would panic in the chair or melt down once his long locks were shorn. We should have known better. In any sphere that Andrew is the center of attention, he does just fine. He spent the entire haircut chatting with the barber, craning his neck to examine his new look in the mirror, and mugging at himself. Jay collected every strand that fell on the floor and put them in a zip-lock bag. He even did a credible job of looking cheerful for Andrew, although I could see the sadness in my husband’s eyes. When the haircut was finished, Andrew hopped down and proclaimed, “I like my new short hair.” He didn’t bring up the subject again for the rest of the evening, except to tell his granndparents on the phone. You could just hear the five of them thinking, “Thank God.”
When we got home, it was time for me to start dinner. I felt inexplicably off, as if the kitchen floor had tilted a degree or the lights were subtly flickering. But I had spaghetti and meatballs to make, so I shrugged it off. On my way downstairs to fetch a clean kitchen towel out of the dryer, I caught sight of Andrew’s long, beautiful curls stuffed in their unceremonious baggie. My off-kilter internal lurch escalated with each step down, and by the time I reached the dryer, I was sobbing and was having difficulty breathing. Luckily Andrew was upstairs, playing with one of his eight million matchbox cars. “This is utterly ridiculous,” I thought to myself, as I forced air into my lungs. “I was the one who wanted his hair cut in the first place.” So much for me being aware of my subterranean emotions; I guess Jay’s surface dwelling is contagious.

It took me a while to sort out what was swirling around in my head. Jay wasn’t the one who was afraid of Andrew’s babyhood ending. I was. With his short hair, Andrew looked like a little boy, not the fish-like creature who emerged from me on New Year’s Eve over two years ago. What I felt in the laundry room was the sickening, irrevocable passing of time. I could never get back the little cherub who scampered on the sandy beach in Thailand, or the infant who called garbage trucks “mims,” or the tiny baby who nursed while nestled in my hair. The march forward is relentless, and I wanted to pause the treadmill for a few minutes–or years–and come to terms with where I am and where Andrew is.

One crummy thing about my illness is that it came into my life at almost exactly the same time as Andrew. I’ve often thought that it is unfair that I have had to grapple with my own mortality precisely when I began nurturing a new life. It just seems as though the forces of birth and death should have their own spheres, at least for a couple of years. I have always resented worrying about my health and my future while I watch Andrew become a little more of himself every day. But this wish is an absurd one, and I know it. Life and death are not zoo animals you can keep in separate cages, letting one out when the other is safely asleep. They are woven into each other like strands of braided bread. You can’t get a taste of one, ever, without some of the other. Understanding this doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Who knows if my visceral realization that every milestone and step forward for Andrew is one step closer to my end–and eventually his–was informed by my illness and its effects on me. Maybe every mother feels the surge of these horrible, cosmic forces with every child she raises. Maybe every mother feels time slipping through her fingers like liquid. Maybe every mother mourns each passing moment because it is irretrievable–and indescribably important. I can’t speak for every mother, but this is the kind of mother I am. I can’t be any other way.

It might be easier if Jay and I were sure we could have another child. Perhaps with this knowledge, each of Andrew’s growth spurts and achievements would seem less final. We could look forward to some day experiencing all this again with another baby. Unfortunately, I’ve been told not to have another child–at least not yet. No one really understands what’s going on with my heart, and since I’m on toxic medication and pregnancy is hard on a healthy heart, much less a damaged one, we’ve been told to wait. We remind ourselves that my doctors have not said that I’ll never be able to have another child. But still, I’m almost 35. Time is not unlimited.

I think I did a good job of cheering myself up for dinner. It’s not that I wanted to be false with my son, but I certainly did not want to chance poisoning an early memory. He shouldn’t recall his mother having a nervous breakdown about his first haircut. Just imagine all the psychological issues that would create. Also, I was beginning to feel genuinely better. Andrew looks wonderful with his new short hair, and he is so proud to be growing up and becoming more independent. “Mommy, I am a big boy,” he likes to tell me. I would never want to undermine this or dampen his drive to reach his next step. To do so would be cruel. But that doesn’t mean that sometimes, down in the damp cool of the laundry room, I can’t ever cry at what I lose–and we all lose–with every passing day.

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