It happens like this. She cuts his hair and they talk, just like any barber and customer. Except this is grandfather and granddaughter, they’re in the bathroom, and this is the closest they get these days.
Imants Ziedonis said it best: Stroke a silver head. Grandmother, grandfather, uncle when he’s sick. And he’ll begin to cry …
How often do you groom a grandparent? Can you count how many times you’ve peered into the same mirror with an aging loved one?
The bathroom is one of the few rooms that doesn’t give away the fact that, after 35 long years, the house is going up for sale.
Only a few haircuts remain.
She learns to cut while cutting. The YouTube videos and numerous trials and errors with her sisters aren’t the same as actually cutting a man’s hair. In fact, grandpa really needs a head shave because he requires a cut every two weeks.
This might be her sixth or seventh time. He settles in. She places a towel around his shoulders. As she cuts, they talk. About the present, past and more frequently – the future. Because it’s Covid and what’s to come is so confusing.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel, of course: there are the vaccines. And yet, 365 days ago, she, her sisters and her mother marked Day 26. They had no clue that the pandemic would stretch to 391, which is today. Nor that broken routines would often make one day seem like another.
How long will the current state last? Will this latest lockdown keep India’s double-mutant virus at bay? Will it be sufficient to clear out the ICUs and vaccinate those most in need?
She thinks about all of this, mostly because her grandfather’s due to move into an apartment. A retirement home, actually. And while Covid’s still raging, she won’t get in and he won’t get out.
Given the global picture, her grandpa’s situation isn’t so terrible. So many people are stuck in their homes, don’t even have a home or have died.
But her grandfather’s got dementia, and she sees what happens. When he’s alone, he spends hours and hours examining old papers. When they meet up, it’s like he’s just come back from another planet. He needs time to acclimatize.
He will forget her.
Their intimate conversations have developed over years of dinners, ravine walks and afternoons on the dock.
She starts on the pasta sauce; her grandfather’s responsible for the salad. As always, he asks what type of dressing she’d like, but then mixes together three dressings that he fancies.
They eat and talk about her deceased grandmother – his wife. He tells her more WWII refugee stories. He asks what she plans to do when she’s finished university.
He slides his fork into a potato wedge.
“You always prepared these when you came for dinner with us!” he exclaims.
She nods and feels her chest tighten.
“And what was it that we always had for dessert?” he asks.
“Crème brûlée,” she says. “From Whole Foods.”
She so wants him to know how she feels about him leaving. How she fears that when he enters the retirement residence, she’ll never see him again.
I’ve told you about my best friend’s grandmother, she says, and then tells him again. For an entire year, my best friend only got to wave to her grandmother through a window. Then she said goodbye, forever, on the phone.
She can feel herself tearing up again.
He smiles, assures her that they too will have the phone. He means for talks, but, you know. He says to not worry and to keep smiling.
It’s been so long since he’s taken on the role of consoler. It’s like he’s placed a warm blanket – no, a warm, Latvian villaine** – over her shoulders, and she feels the love.
But she knows talking on the phone isn’t that easy. He needs eye contact. He needs time. For her, too, these are the things of importance.
*Words in italic are Barry Callaghan’s translation of Imants Ziedonis’s “Epiphany XII” from Flowers of Ice (Exile Editions, 1987). This is one of my dad’s favourite poems.
**A villaine is a Latvian wool shawl. It dates back to the 7th century and is often embroidered with Latvian symbols.