It is a warm August morning in 2000, and I am sitting in the car parked just outside the small brick barber shop. It is set apart from the school on one side and the fire department equally distant on the other. On the outside wall, the barber pole’s faded red, white and blue stripes revolve in a cylinder, moving downward in a diagonal direction. Tiny stars of light show through the holes in the stripes.
Beside the barber pole is the large picture window, scratched and fogged with age. I watch my dad angled slightly with his back to me in the barber chair, the window framing him as if he is the diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawk, only it’s a Saturday morning in August, not an evening in New York City.
My father is frail and small, his six-foot frame now diminished to barely 130 pounds. The barber gently wraps the apron of cloth around him to catch snowy hair as he snips. He combs and trims carefully around my dad’s ears. The barber’s own hair is as white as my dad’s, but his body is straight and strong; he still moves easily. Dad stumbles and lurches and falls often, his brain forgetting to coordinate the sure movements and grace of his long legs as it once did.
Dad sits still and patient in the chair. He doesn’t speak after the greeting when he arrived until he is ready to leave. The barber has handed him a frosted six-ounce bottle of Coca Cola from the old-fashioned soft drink machine, when he looks up and says, “Much obliged.”
In my growing up years, my bedroom was directly above the basement garage where my dad spent several hours most nights after he finished his day job. On summer nights even the cooler air of the basement did not reach my bedroom and we had no air conditioning or fans to move the air. I lay in bed reading under the tented sheet with my flashlight, ever aware of the thump of moths on the window screen as they flung themselves toward my small light. I could hear the clink of tools, rumble of the dolly that my dad lay down on to roll under a car and the mumbles of conversation and laughter as he worked. A neighbor or a relative’s balky engine or brakes that had become worn or leaky were the patients in his operating room and the music I heard as I drifted toward sleep.
My dad showed up for people. He showed me his presence/presents philosophy, and his generosity and care for others was as soft-spoken as he was. He was the greeter at church, the acolyte who lit the candles on the altar and snuffed them out at service’s end, the keeper of the cemetery who measured the plots for graves of friends and family.
“Don’t take any wooden nickels,” he wrote to me as I moved away from home and started college. He wasn’t heavy-handed with advice, but his helping others unselfishly and perhaps taking a few wooden nickels himself (at least in others’ views) showed more than the words he could have used. I wonder if his father or one of his older siblings gave him the wooden nickel advice when he left for Europe at age 20 to serve in World War II. He was the youngest son in a family of 11 children, and the only one to serve in WWII.
Dad had a boyish smile, genuine, not forced, but open, welcoming, wondering. Dogs and children always seemed to seek him out. Or he sought them. He loved even the smallest of “neighbors” as himself.
When my daughter died in a car that crashed into a tree before it stopped, he walked around the crash site with tape measure in his pocket and later told me, “Six inches. If the car had swerved six inches sooner. . .” He began to lose his facility with numbers and patterns, and he called me to show him how to use a new can opener one day.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the summer of 2000. He had to stay awake all night before the EEG and other tests at a neurology appointment. For my dad who had such a wonderful ability to nap when tired and to sleep soundly, impressing us all, this staying awake was a herculean task. Before we entered the doctor’s office the next morning, he asked me who were the candidates in the presidential election that fall. He wanted to “pass” the questions on current events that others had asked as they probed his cognitive state. He tried so hard to stay grounded in time and place, but it was as if he floated unmoored down Alice’s tunnel instead. Sometimes he found his grounding for a short time before the descent began again.
The last time I took him to the emergency department after yet another fall, my dad told the doctor who asked his age that he was 41 (half his age of 82). But when the doctor asked about his medical history, he remembered that his World War II duty included a long hospitalization.
He told the doctor that he had spent time in Belgium, France, England and Czechoslovakia, more words and places than he had been able to string together for conversation in months.
When the doctor finished and stood to leave, he reached for my dad’s hand and as he shook it, said, “Thank you for your service to us and to our country, Mr. Harper.”
“Much obliged,” my dad said to the young doctor.
~This reflection was included in a different form in Expressions of the Heart: A Moravian Journal of Spirituality, in 2003 in an issue of the magazine themed “Loving Each Other.”