“Mom, look what I found,” Kathleen said as she pulled a slip of paper from her shiny fuchsia purse. “A two-for-one Clairol coupon.”
That Friday in July had started out okay. Despite my brother facing death from pancreatic cancer in Grand Rapids and the hundred-degree weather in Chicago, I was determined to be upbeat as I left our new condo in the Loop to help my daughter get ready for a garage sale. The sale would be at her new home, our former house, in the southwest suburb of Palos Heights.
I arrived at noon. The dead-flower smell of primer paint greeted me when I opened the front door. My husband, Marv, had been painting over my teal and peach colors that Kathleen said politely were not her first choice. I intended to do some cleaning before Kath came. I’d not been back to clean since our move a few weeks earlier. Besides unpacking and finding a place for the contents in 80 boxes, Marv and I had made a trip to say goodbye to my brother.
I had greeted Dewey with: “Here I am, the ‘It’s another girl’ little sister you announced to the neighbors in Peoria, Iowa, when I was born.”
He struggled to lean forward in his recliner. He reached out to hug me with his bony arms. His body appeared to be tightly wrapped in yellow-tinged Saran Wrap. He smiled. “I did go around to the neighbors, didn’t I?” He clasped my hands.
“Yes, but I’ve forgiven you. I have another memory. Long Island. Remember when you were a senior in high school and you rode me on your bike to kindergarten? When we crossed the Brook Street bridge on our way to Sayville, you taught me that water was H20, and that bit of chemistry probably prompted my interest in nursing when I grew up.”
Dewey grinned, as if picturing the carefree days of biking over the bubbling brook.
I added, “And you’ve also been a role model for me becoming a teacher.”
He laughed. For the twenty minutes he stayed awake, we reminisced, never taking our eyes off each other, never letting go of each other’s hands. I left him unable to believe that the next time I’d see him, he’d be in a casket. I felt numb.
Now, back in my former home, I roamed from my study, to the living room, to the bedrooms, and back to the kitchen trying to decide what to clean first. I remembered Kath’s comment: “The house has turned into a spider condo.” So I started with the spiders, sailing through the house with a mop over my head. Then I started to vacuum, but immediately got overheated, even with the air on. So, I tackled the side-by-side fridge. I shivered when the cool air hit my soaked T-shirt. The inside walls needed only a wipe-down, but the meat and vegetable drawers with their dried-on meat drippings, celery leaves, and peach juice demanded to be removed, soaked, and scrubbed. Likewise, the grille, coated with years of greasy dust. While the grille was soaking, I knelt down to vacuum the coils underneath.
Around three, Kathleen popped in from work. “You’re just in time to help me roll the fridge out,” I said from my hands-and-knees position.
“What for?” She plopped her purse on the bar.
“To clean behind it.”
“Whoever cleans behind their fridge? I didn’t even know you could pull them out.” She inspected her manicure—acrylic burgundy nails. “I better not chip my nails.”
We edged the fridge forward, she on the cupboard side, me on the hallway side
“This is a waste of time.” Kathleen grinned.” It’s hardly even dirty behind here.”
“Of course it’s not dirty. I pulled it out and mopped behind here every week,” I said, with a Molly-Maid look on my face.
“Yeah, right, Mom.” She turned to open doors to the pantry. “Are you finished wiping this down? I want to start putting things away.”
I wanted to remind her that I’d come to help her get ready for the garage sale, but she was eager to unpack the boxes she’d been bringing for weeks. And I was restless anyway, so I decided I could keep cleaning awhile. All week I’d been pacing around my condo, checking emails every time I passed the computer for news about my brother. The stark words on the screen ran over and over in my head. “He did not get out of bed today for the first time.” “Our minister came to say good-bye, and, after he prayed for Dewey, Dewey asked to pray for him.” “We hope it will go quickly.”
I went into quick-wipe mode with my pine-smelling cleaner. As soon as my rag left the roll-out drawers of the pantry, Kath lined up her baking pans and supplies. “Look, Mom. I’m ready to make my goody trays for Thanksgiving. Ghirardelli’s chocolate, peanut butter, nuts.”
Thanksgiving seemed years away.
For over thirty years, we’d driven on snowy roads from Chicago to my brother’s home in Grand Rapids for Thanksgiving, a day for my siblings and their families to catch up on the year. It struck me that Dewey wouldn’t be there this year. Who would carve the turkey? Who would open with prayer? Who would sit at the head of the table?
My mind filled with cotton. No images came.
At five, I had not finished cleaning. We had not started with the dusty piles in the garage. I felt nauseated from hunger and heat. Kathleen had cracked open the patio door in the kitchen so her pugs, Bria and Brandy, could go in and out. How could a daughter of mine waste air-conditioning like that? “We have to go eat,” I said, “or I will never make it getting all that junk in the garage ready for the sale.”
“What do you feel like eating?” Kath said.
“I don’t know. What about Baker’s Square? It’s closest.”
“I’ve eaten there a lot lately. I’d rather go to—”
“Jonathan’s? Or what used to be Jonathan’s?”
“Chinese? There’s a place by Ace Hardware where Dad and I used to go. In the corner of that strip mall on Ridgeland and 127th.”
“Fine. Sounds good. I can get my Chinese fix.”
“Let’s go then before I faint. I need to stop at Osco on the way.”
It was while we were waiting in line at Osco to pick up a film that Kathleen found her Clairol coupon and said, “Let’s do our hair tonight. Mine’s past due.”
“I came out here to get ready for our garage sale tomorrow, not do hair,” I said, giving her my you-have-to-be-kidding look. “I don’t do my own coloring. And I never do my whole head with one color. Plus I’m starting to like turning gray.”
“Dull, Mom, dull.” Kathleen laughed. “You need to lighten up.”
“Forget it. I’m not coloring my own hair. I wouldn’t trust it. Besides, with Uncle Dewey’s funeral coming up and two family reunions, I don’t need a fiasco.”
“Look at my hair, Mom. I never have a problem with coloring my own. It works every time. Risk, Mom, risk. Hair is hair. It grows.”
Kathleen’s hair—flipped out Meg Ryan style in varying shades of blond on top of each other—was adorable. She always gets compliments on her hair. Even I heard them. The week before a sales clerk helping me buy a dining set for my new condo said, “Your daughter’s hair is so sharp. And, in my other life, I’m a hairdresser.”
Could I make my hair sharp without the help of my hairdresser? Why not take a risk? If Kathleen could at 36, why couldn’t I at 63? In the whole scheme of life and death, did hair color even matter?
I remembered one Thanksgiving only a few years back when the subject of hair color had come up. My three sisters and I all did some sort of coloring to our ash blonde hair, so we often compared notes. Dewey entered the conversation: “I use Grecian Formula myself.”
I was shocked. “You mean that brown is not your normal color?” I could not imagine my dignified, philosophy-professor brother with his head over the sink coloring his hair.
Dewey’s eyes twinkled. “I want to stay looking young for my students.”
“Good for you,” I said, marveling that he was still teaching.
After I paid for my film, Kathleen prodded me toward the hair-coloring aisle.
“First, I have to call Aunt Esther,” I said. “Her hair is about my color and she colors hers all the time. She could tell me what color works on her hair. But I don’t have her number.” I felt the glow of a possible reprieve.
Kath flipped her phone open. “I have it. She called me last week to tell me Uncle Dewey was stopping his food and fluids and going on hospice.” She searched for the number while we walked. In my mind I saw Dewey hooked up to IVs a few weeks earlier when I’d driven up to take a six-hour turn of sitting with him in the hospital. In the half hour he was able to stay awake, I walked with him as he slowly pushed his IV pole to the solarium a few doors down the hall.
The room was empty. We sat at a round table. Dewey pulled his IV pole next to left elbow, smoothed out a kink of IV tubing, and covered his legs with the hospital gown. A dry burp erupted from his mouth. He clasped his chest. “I don’t want to live like this.” He paused and looked straight at me. “I can’t imagine not being able to eat again. I can’t even swallow a sip of water.”
I nodded, saw the pain in his sunken eyes.
“Lois, I’m not a fighter. Never have been.”
I wanted to assure myself that he was ready to give up fighting for his life, his passions. I wondered if I was being selfish, but I had to know. Gently, I reminded him of his numerous accomplishments—a Harvard doctorate in philosophy, many years of college teaching, publications, church leadership positions. “Didn’t doing all this work require a fighting spirit?”
“Not really. I did those all on my own. I never had to compete with others, and I always enjoyed the work.” He paused to look at the tops of trees out the window. “Besides,” he glanced at his IV pole, “this is no way to live.”
“Quality of life,” I said. “You wrote an article on that once, didn’t you? How it may affect end-of-life decisions?”
It took a minute for him to respond. His frail body leaned against the stark table. He grinned—skin pulled taut across his cheekbones. “I think you’re right. I think I did write something about that.” He stopped. His eyes sparkled. “You remember that!”
“Of course I do. Remember we discussed it that one Thanksgiving right after it was published?”
He nodded as his expression turned serious. “It’s an entirely different thing to write about it than to live it. I know much more now.”
His eyes closed. I saw his fatigue and suggested we walk back to his room. He was snoring in seconds. I snapped his picture—a gaunt, but peaceful profile, backed by a hanging IV bag and pastel bedside curtain.
Kathleen interrupted my reverie. “Here, Mom,” she said as she handed me her phone, “It’s ringing.”
Esther’s husband answered. “Esther’s not home.” Reprieve once again. I glanced at Kath.
She read my mind: “Tell Uncle Dave you want Aunt Rose’s number.”
“Dave, this is an emergency hair color question. Could you find Rose’s number?”
When Rose answered on the first ring, I said, “I’m in the hair aisle of my drug store. Kath wants us to color our hair tonight. I said ‘absolutely not’ unless I get advice from one of my sisters.”
“You’re lucky to find me home. I’ve been out shopping for the last five hours with my three daughters in town. What a kick! Let me see, I’ve got a package right here. L’Oreal. LB01. Extra Light Ash Blond.”
“Oh, no. Kath’s coupon is for Clairol.”
“Don’t get it. This exact color works best. Spring for the $7.99, buy your own, and get what I know will work for you.
“I don’t think I should even do it. Not with the funeral and reunions coming up.”
“Go for it, Lois. Hair is hair. It grows.”
Flippant. She could say that—she wouldn’t be coming from Seattle for the funeral. Kath could say that—a botched color now and then has never bothered her. Me? If not then, when?
We used Kath’s coupon.
It was cool in the little Chinese place as we hovered over our menus. Kathleen flipped her menu on the table. “I’ll get kung pao—chicken, pork, and shrimp. That fits with my South Beach diet.”
“I’m having my usual—sweet and sour chicken.”
“My brain cells need every one.” I felt hypoglycemic, so I settled back in the chair and willed any stored calories I had to my head.
Kathleen glanced out the window at the strip of stores. “I should get paint. Dad’s almost finished with priming.”
Paint! Who was thinking of paint? I almost passed out just thinking of the mounds of work we needed to do yet that night.
After the fortune cookie, (mine was empty—an omen?), we hurried next door to Ace Hardware. “I’d like a light pink to go with my new Tommy linens—hot pink and apple green,” Kathleen said as we scanned a pamphlet of off-white shades. “I see the one I want. Guess which one.”
I guessed two that had a pinkish tint.
Kathleen giggled. “No, no, no. You’re always telling me to think out of the box. To think the unexpected. Now you do it.”
I was stymied and suddenly impatient. “I give up. Tell me.”
Kathleen pointed to a light green.
“Green? You really mean green?”
“I said to think out of the box, didn’t I? Yes, I decided to go with the green rather than the pink. I don’t really care, you know that, Mom. I want it light. All over. My bedroom, the bathrooms, maybe more. So I’ll take that one.”
My head doesn’t work like hers. I hem, I haw, I think twice, then rethink. Now I thought of something Kathleen should know about decorating. “Look at those strips over there and find the exact color of your apple green linens.”
She snatched a strip from a wall of dozens of strips. “This looks close. Close enough.”
“I’m not so sure. If you’re really going to do several rooms like this, I’d be more comfortable if we went home and matched a darker color toward the top of the strip with your linens.”
Kath laughed. “We want you to be comfortable, don’t we, Mom? Okay, let’s scoot home.”
We barreled out of the Ace parking lot in her black Bravada. I sucked in a deep breath as I always do when I ride with her and reminded myself I’ve lived a good life. At that moment, the thought felt superficial with my brother at death’s door.
We matched one color to her linens in the setting sunlight in the kitchen bay window, then double-checked it in the subdued lighting of the bedroom. We dashed back to Ace Hardware for the lightest green. A color considerably different from the light green in the off-white pamphlet.
I wondered why I even cared if my daughter’s color schemes looked coordinated. My move, my brother’s dying, my daughter’s move—all crashed together in my mind like a pile-up on the highway. But I loved decorating and helping her with colors. My suggestions of Siamese Kitten, Blade Runner Green, Sweet Raspberry, and Denim Blue in her last house had turned out perfect.
It was 7:30 before we got all Kathleen’s paint. Yes, all her paint. Because once she ordered the green, she decided she wanted BRIGHT green, BRIGHT yellow, and BRIGHT pink to do her own creative thing on the light green walls. As she fingered a rainbow of paint strips, she flashed me a smile. “A little lemon-lime with a raspberry twist. A quart of each.”
All, of course, had to be mixed. As I watched the elderly salesclerk methodically move his head up and down to read the mixing instructions with his bifocals, my mind wandered to Dewey in his hospice bed in their sitting room, surrounded by his wife and four children, quietly and patiently awaiting death. I felt irreverent buying paint.
The store stayed open past closing to accommodate Kath’s order.
We started setting up for the sale in the sauna-like garage around 8 and finished at 11:30. I don’t know what possessed me, but as we chugged down our third bottle of ice water, I said, “We have time yet to do our hair if you want, Kathleen.” Maybe by then I had to prove to myself that I could be care-free and take a risk. Or maybe I was too tired to access common sense.
So, close to the Cinderella midnight deadline, Kathleen shampooed the gorgeous new me into my hair.
My hair came out orange. Fiery orange. “I think it’s too red for me.” I could not mouth another word.
Kathleen blew my hair dry, ruffling its four-inch length with her free hand. In the bathroom mirror, I saw a windswept beach walker in the Cancun sun, concern plastered in the lines of her tired face.
I did not recognize myself. The stranger in the mirror reminded me of Dewey’s comment to me a few years ago at a reunion of distant relatives. Marv and I had arrived late. As we walked into a large VFW hall twanging with country music, I eagerly scanned the room for a familiar face. I spotted Dewey across the room and wound my way through a knot of people to reach him. When he finished his conversation, I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to me, smiled, and extended his hand. “Why hello, I’m Dewey Hoitenga. And who are you?”
I shook his hand. “I’m your sister—Lois.”
Dewey leaned back to look at me, grabbed my hand with both hands, chuckled, and drew me toward him. “Of course, of course!”
For sure, he wouldn’t recognize me now. A hundred Thanksgivings at his home would not have helped make this spectacle look familiar.
Kathleen put down the hairdryer and flipped her fingers through my hair. “It looks great, Mom. Perks you up. You needed to lighten up.”
My smile was thin. It was almost one in the morning. I fell into bed in the room that had been Kathleen’s through high school and slept.
At seven on Saturday morning, Kath treated me to one of her cans of dark chocolate Slimfast for breakfast. While we sat at the kitchen bar, we heard a noise outside. “Mom, I advertised the sale to start at nine. It’s maddening when the antique dealers come early.”
The noise was Marv. He had come from the city to help us set up. Before I could think to talk, Kathleen blurted, “What do you think of Mom’s hair?”
My husband of 43 years has never commented on my hair. He has apologized numerous times for not noticing hair cuts I’ve pointed out to him. Now he stopped moving garbage cans out of the garage to stare. His “What did you do?” was more an indictment than an inquiry.
Kathleen answered. “We colored our hair, Dad. Doesn’t she look great?”
“No, I liked it before. What possessed you—”
I waved my arm toward Kathleen. “Kath’s idea. I certainly know better than to mess with my own hair.”
Marv eyelids flickered the way they do when he means business. “Next time Kath gets an idea like this, you say ‘No’.”
Kathleen pursed her lips in fake mockery. “Guess we know how Dad feels, don’t we, Mom?”
I smiled. “Kath says I need to lighten up. I certainly have. Hair grows.”
Just then early customers showed up, and we stayed busy until three in the afternoon. No time to think about my orange hair.
When I got home that evening, an e-mail from Dewey’s wife, Kay, informed me that my brother had lost consciousness. I could not look like Lucille Ball at his funeral. Not the brother I admired for his analytical mind, his precise diction. Even his use of the semicolon. I refreshed my memory of one of my favorite passages in his book, Faith and Reason from Plato to Plantinga: An Introduction to Reformed Epistemology. “It is this faculty of reason that distinguishes a human being, both as knower and as believer, from a beast. The earthworm is in touch with the earth, but it does not know the earth it is ‘acquainted’ with. The birds and the beavers know how to build their nests and their dams, but they do not know what a nest or a dam is; they do not even know what they themselves, birds and beavers, are.” (p. 25).
I needed a quick plan to rescue my sedate self from the orange flames.
The next morning I could not concentrate in church. I felt conspicuous and was sure everyone behind me was thinking about roasting marshmallows on my bonfire. What would I do? Call my former hairdresser in Palos Heights and admit my foolishness? Pay her ninety dollars for a repair?
I did not want to spend that much money on this mistake. After church, I Googled Sally’s Beauty Supply where I’d purchased my hair products when living in the suburbs. I knew their clerks were hairdressers and could counsel me. I was pleased to find a store located three blocks from my condo and immediately told Marv I was taking a walk.
Sally’s was closed.
I retreated to my new large bathroom with its mile-wide mirror. A mile of color reminding me of a brilliant sunset in Florida. My hair, the flaming ball of sun; my white SPF-45 face, the white sandy beach.
At seven Monday morning, my sister, Kay, called from Toledo. “This is the call you’ve been waiting for.”
A lump formed in my throat. “When?” I could barely get the word out.
“At four. Peacefully. His last response was a hand squeeze around one-thirty.”
I hung up the phone. My only brother was dead. My brother, the Harvard-educated philosopher who assured me one Thanksgiving after I got my doctorate in nursing that I could be fulfilled teaching baccalaureate students in a small Christian college. He said I would have more time for my own scholarly pursuits if I didn’t have to serve on thesis committees of master’s or doctoral students. He added I would have more time to enjoy my students if I didn’t have the stringent “publish or perish” tenure requirements of a big ten university.
He had been right.
After breakfast, I pulled on jean capris and a T-shirt and walked to Sally’s. The ten-dollar solution I hoped for turned me strawberry blond. More strawberry than blond. Plump strawberries because now my uneven, last haircut looked even worse—bunchy in the back, longer on the left side than the right, too short and spiky on the top.
I knew no hairdressers in the city. A few times in my suburban life, I’d splurged and gone to Vidal Sassoon in Water Tower Place on the Magnificent Mile. “I’d like to make an appointment with your least expensive person. Sixty-six dollars? That’s fine. One-forty-five is good.”
Thirty-one dollars more than my Palos Heights hairdresser, but still cheaper than the ninety she charged me for coloring. The irony hit me. What was supposed to be a free hair coloring was now not so free. About ninety dollars so far.
The twenty-something stylist combed my hair with her fingers.” If you don’t want to spend more on coloring, we need to cut it off, so you can start out fresh. It should grow out in a few months.”
Months. The wake was in 48 hours.
I sweated the 25-minute walk home down Michigan Avenue. One-inch spikes of bright strawberry-blond hair greeted me in every store window. Evenly distributed. Symmetrical. Balanced.
At least I’d gotten that accomplished.
Marv was waiting in his recliner, open Tribune on his lap. “I thought when you said you were going to Sassoon, you were having your hair color fixed.”
I could not respond.
“Or have you decided that you like orange?”
Did he not understand? I could not see spending any more money on this project. Hair grows, I wanted to yell. If it’s short, I’ll get rid of the color quicker with a cut than with another coloring job on my longer hair that had a bad cut anyway.
After another trip to Sally’s, I traded the strawberries for fresh pineapple.
On Wednesday, Marv was not able to go with me to Michigan for the wake and funeral. I drove out to Palos Heights to pick up Kathleen. She lowered her six-foot self into my Beetle and glanced over at me. Her face burst into a smile. “Your hair looks great, Mom. Are you liking it?”
It didn’t sound like she even noticed the new coloring or the haircut. I couldn’t believe it. “Do you want to hear the whole story?”
She teased. “I know you want to tell me, so go ahead.”
I told her the story of two trips to Sally’s and one trip to Sassoon. Plus the serendipitous shopping trip to Lord & Taylor next door to Sassoon. “Great sales. I bought two pair of capris—one yellow, lime, and fuchsia floral and one raspberry, black, and teal print. And a bright green shirt blouse.” I glanced at her and pulled a happy face. “All wild, to go with my new haircut and color. And all for only sixty-eight dollars and twenty-eight cents.”
Kath giggled and slapped my leg. “Way to go, Mom. Aren’t you glad you did this now?”
“Thrilled. Add that sixty-eight to the ninety dollars I’ve already spent.” I told myself to lighten up and sent her an I-love-you-anyway look.
We talked busily the whole three hours about our recent jammed weeks. We stopped once at a rest stop. When we finally exited I-96 onto 28th Street, I said, “I think I may want to visit Grandpa and Grandma’s graves after the funeral tomorrow. We can pass their cemetery on the way to the expressway.”
Kath turned serious. “It’s your day, Mom. I will do whatever you want to do.”
We arrived at the funeral home just before the seven o’clock crowd. My sister-in-law, Kay, was sitting alone on a couch, feet up, reading, in the outer room. She jumped up and hugged us. “I’ll go with you.” She called for a daughter in another room to join us.
The four of us strode quietly to the viewing room. My brother’s thinness hit me. Pancreatic cancer had eaten his fat away. At the casket, I gazed at his face and took a breath, inhaling the familiar heavy sweet odor of funeral flowers.
The others left me alone. I leaned in close to the casket, fingered the loose fabric of the arm of his suit jacket, and walked my thumb and index fingers around his arm until they overlapped. I thought of our conversation in the hospital about being unable to eat. This was no way to live, I assured him silently.
Hearing the hushed sounds of people arriving behind me, I remembered the last few seconds I had spent with Dewey during my goodbye visit ten days earlier. When I saw that he was starting to have difficulty keeping his eyes open, I said, “I’m going to let you rest now. Do you have anything else you’d like to tell me before I leave?”
I had hoped he’d say what a smart, witty, and wonderful baby sister I turned out to be, but he, still squeezing my hands, had something more present on his mind: “Lois, if you ever suffer my fate, know that in the end your life’s accomplishments mean nothing. It’s being loved and surrounded by family that counts.”
I thought of Marv coming early to help with the garage sale, Kathleen nudging me into an out-of-the-box risk, Jon—my son in Seattle—calling me from I-5 on his way home from work the day Dewey died: “Hi, Mom. How are you doing?”
Turning around, I saw Marv’s sister who lives in Grand Rapids enter the room with her husband. She drew me like a magnet into her embrace. She held me close. I’d done the same for her when Marv’s older brother, Dewey’s age and a classmate in seminary, had died a few years earlier. We both sobbed.
I spotted Rachel, my sister Esther’s daughter—Kathleen’s age, walking toward me, arms outstretched. “Aunt Lois, my sympathy.” She stepped back, whispered, “You are so hip. Your hair. You are always so sharp.”
Glancing back at the casket, I smiled as I recalled the mischief in Dewey’s eyes when he’d said he used Grecian Formula.
I wouldn’t be able to tell him the next Thanksgiving about my orange-hair episode. I wouldn’t be able to sidle up next to him while he was carving the turkey and tell him about the upset it caused me getting presentable for his funeral. But I would be able to picture the grin tiptoeing across his face as he listened to my story.