Shaving - Uncharted


By Edward Jackson

Content warning: Themes of death

Your dad woke from a ten-day coma. He was forty-seven and living in the in-between measurements of time. You were fourteen. He shared a room with four men at a nursing home that specialized in neuro diseases like Parkinson’s and MS. He had the latter. During the coma, the nursing home moved him to a critical care room. A room to himself that was dim and quiet. As if he needed more rest. He’d been in a coma for almost two weeks. Confused as to how much time had passed, his mind was slow to reboot and the body lost even more mobility. Before, it was a paralysis below the waist. When he woke from the in-between time, the paralysis crept up to his lower chest. They said it would eventually spread everywhere. He would need a vent to breathe soon they said. He made sure those that said these things to him understood he’d never be on a vent again after the ten-day coma.

This new paralysis made a regular wheelchair impossible since he needed some stability to keep his body upright. This chair they put him in was different. It had a tray that all but pressed into his chest. It pushed his body to the back of the seat, kept his trunk upright. He was strapped in like a child. But it worked. They said your dad lost trunk control. Funny to think of your midbody as a trunk. The new chair, the Geri chair, was weird and bulky. He was groggy for a few days. You spent as much time as you could there, waking him up. They moved him back to his room. The room with four beds was only occupied by three men now. One of his roommates had died. A blow to morale for the other three. The man that died swore a lot. He was forty-six.

You told your dad about the death of his roommate, but he interrupted you asking how many days he had been in the coma. Ten. Ten days. You told him. Again. And Again. He touched his ten-day beard and scratched at it. He asked for a mirror and shook as he tried to hold it examining his face. His overgrown nails scratched his face and small spots of blood appeared. You touched his hands and put them on the tray to stop him from scratching his face.

You bit your fingernails nervously. You’d been a biter since you could remember. You scratched his face for him, slowly and left no scratches. He closed his eyes.

“Get my shaving kit out of my closet,” he said. He hated beards.

You pulled the bag out and turned on the electric shaver. “No, it’s too long now. Go fill up that mug with hot water from the bathroom and use a safety razor.”

“I’ll get a nurse to find an aide to do it,” you said.

“No. I want you to do it. You need to learn. Soon you’ll be shaving. Might as well learn on me. You need to learn a lot of things.”

“I’ve never…”

“Just go run the water till it’s hot.”

Even your dad interrupted you. Everyone interrupted you. People in your family interrupted each other as if time were so scarce there wasn’t enough of it to listen to the end of each other’s sentences. They were right. Time was running out. You did as he asked. You felt it was rude to do so otherwise, even though you were scared to do this.

He directed you to shave his face. He was teaching you to shave your own.

He told you how to hold the razor upward on the neck to avoid bumps he called razor burn. The razor went downward on the cheeks. You shook at first and cut him. He directed you to use a styptic pencil that was in his shaving kit. He told you every man needed to have a styptic pencil to stop the bleeding. He educated you on the reasons why placing a cube of toilet paper on a shaving cut was stupid. He warned that doing that would result in a scab. He told you about a time he went through the day with toilet paper stuck to his face. Styptic pencils it was. There was some benefit to being under medical care for so long. He got to know and use words like styptic.

To achieve sideburns, he discussed how to hold the back of a comb for a straight line. It was the 80s after all he told you, no need for mutton chops, but might as well make use of the overgrowth for some good sideburns. He specified to hold the cheek tight with your left hand to keep the skin from slacking.

Shaving him was intimate. You’d seen your dad in uncomfortable situations due to his disease, but those times felt clinical and medical. This moment, this lesson, the shaving, it was different. It wasn’t so much a dad-son bond, but an intimacy that people share when they know time is precious or running out. Guards get let down during those times, feelings too.

You examined his face and saw spots and scars you’d never noticed. He was handsome, thick black hair with some graying around the temples. He had the same five-finger forehead that you and your sister had. You wondered if she had ever examined him that closeup before. He had what he called strawberry nose. You had that too. Pores that looked like strawberry seeds if not cleaned properly. His lips were cracked from a lack of moisture due to the breathing tube that was inserted into his throat during the coma.

After shaving, you washed his face with Dial soap and a washcloth. Then he asked you to moisturize his skin. He said people like you and him never should use aftershave. There was no need for that shit with the fair and rough Irish skin you were cursed with. He told you the alcohol in aftershave would dry your skin out. Instead, he directed you to put moisturizer on his skin. Then he said you shouldn’t do that yourself until puberty was over. He directed you to find his medicated Chapstick in his dresser drawer and you applied it to his chapped lips. You learned from him that all other kinds of Chapstick were bullshit and light blue medicated was the only one that worked.

He asked you to get him a certain shirt and discussed deodorant and what kinds to use. The goal was to avoid offensive smells like musk and cheap brands. Throughout all this, you played New Order’s Substance on the stereo you’d brought from home. He told you he liked Side One particularly the first song, Ceremony, which technically was a Joy Division song first. But you liked the New Order version better and was glad he did too. He said the sound was lovely and the words were painful. What strange words for a song to contain from a listener in the same sentence. Painful and lovely. The song felt fitting when Bernard Sumner sang about events unnerving him.

You wheeled him to the dining hall, and his arms were weak from a lack of use during the coma, so you fed him. He asked you if you could leave the stereo for a while, and you didn’t tell him you already planned to. Instead you smiled and nodded. You put on one of his Johnny Cash albums and got your backpack and said goodbye and headed out. As you walked down the hallway you looked at the cinderblock walls painted in vibrant colors. His hall was off-white with a huge emerald-green stripe painted on the middle row of cinder. You were glad it was green. It was his home now, and the color of the stripe was significant in ways you couldn’t explain to others. But it made sense to you.

On that walk down the hallway, you realized there were so many things a father teaches a son and that your father wasn’t afforded the time to do this with you. His time was limited. You thought of all the talks that weren’t going to occur in your future. Talks about sex and love. Money and jobs. Lawnmowers and barbeques. Jump-starting cars and buying stereo equipment. Suits and ties.

You thought how you used words like I love you because you thought it made him feel better. It was the only way you knew how to alleviate the pain of his disease. But this education of shaving he gave you was perhaps more significant than any words of affection you could say to him. This education proved you were wrong in thinking only words could give comfort. You realized that with what little time you had left, you needed to be more active in the encounters with him. Not just visiting him, spending time with him, and saying I love you. You knew that while you could learn these lessons about being a man from uncles or others, you knew he wanted to be the one to teach you these things, and you needed to learn them from him. As you walked out of the nursing home you got on the bus to the mall where you would buy a tie. Seemed learning how to tie a tie from him was a good place to start in this crash course in father-son lessons from the dying father.

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