My brother Toby is six years younger than me. As a three-year old lad, he was universally adored by teenage girls at church, wooed and cooed over because his dark eyelashes fluttered like lazy cabana fans and his black hair was licked by cream-fed cows at the center of his hairline in a cool-to-be-square duck-tail. Since I was nine-years old at the time, I was jealous of all the fuss over my kid brothers adorability. But I was his big brother and it was my bound duty to look after him and protect him from the perils of ogling teenage girls.
My sympathetic protection turned to empathetic awareness once we both reached the age of thinning hair. I am nothing if not compassionate and charitable toward those who suffer the same pain that I have endured. It was my idea, to shave his hair, his glory, his cowlick wonder head, so I’ve endured a degree of guilt over my act of desecration. But, now I’ve moved on to other meaningful life issues, paying penance in the midst of entering the black hole of shaving my brothers head, escorting him from masculinity to shame and back again, I recognized my familial duty to lead Toby through the valley of the shadow of male pattern baldness.
I told Toby to “go short”, the mantra of many thinning men, nine years ago, after his barber gave him a version of the comb-over that millions of hair challenged men have resorted to as a solution to thin hair. In my full-haired days, I observed a forty-something gentleman sitting in front of me and a buddy at a college football game. I remember only two things about that Saturday afternoon. Miami crushed Tulsa, and this man displayed the strangest hair part in the history of thin hair management. He thought nobody would notice that his part originated at the back of his neck and circled his head just above the left ear. My friend made jokes about the part originating halfway down his back and I snickered like a grammar school boy sitting on the front row of chapel snorting helium, trying not to laugh. Now my buddy and I have shaved heads and it’s not funny anymore. We’re bald. But we have chosen to embrace our loss not by attempting to part our hair just above the left ear, but rather by wallowing in our minimal coverage, to love and indulge it. We had to jump off the cliff, from the heights of the Samson fraternity of virile male strength and land in the downy soft valley, the sacred brotherhood of those who have surrendered and shaved their domes.
W.H. Auden wrote, “We would rather be ruined than changed.” That first change, the buzz-cutt, is like jumping out of a plane with only an umbrella to break your fall. It’s a step of that requires courage. There is an admission of middle-age, of saying goodbye to your comb, brush and hair dryer.
Freed from the bondage of hair vanity, we are liberated, cleansed, becoming ourselves once again. Very few people understand this. My wife told me when she cut her hair once, I gave her a funny look, and because of that hair trauma, she felt my pain, but I told her no, she could never feel the pain my brother and I share. She would never enter our sacred brotherhood any more than we could enter her sisterhood of childbearing. For a man to lose something so powerful and symbolic is emasculating and difficult for a female to comprehend. We wallow in our pity alone with one another.
As I shaved Toby’s head and reassured him that he was still a man, his wife Debbie and my wife Karen walked into the room. I reassured him that life would be better now, through the muffled snickering of the inconsiderate women now observing and belittling. Through it all, however, I couldn’t bring myself to shave off the front area, the cowlick that had been so cute when my little brother was a baby. So I left it longer and shaved the rest. I stood back and looked. I said, “That’s the first twelve hair cowlick I’ve ever seen!” Then the two women who didn’t know any better fell to the kitchen floor, doubled over in laughter. And I, the one who felt his pain, couldn’t stop laughing. We were laughing uncontrollably, like the time we were sitting behind that guy with the comb over at the football game.
Perhaps though, I’ve found a silver lining. For in becoming less, our baldness gives us more. More of what we came into the world with. Thinly veiled heads, lots of scalp, newborns all over again, like Jesus said, “. . . unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
To paraphrase Psalm 131, one of the shortest Psalms:
I do not concern myself with much hair or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child with its mother,
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.