When my father died, I stopped cutting my hair. In numerous cultures around the world, cutting one’s hair, shaving one’s head, pulling, or rending one’s hair is a ceremonial or culturally appropriate mourning behaviour or demonstration of grief. I chose to grow mine out. But I don’t know how I came to this. My mother impressed upon all of us to wear dark clothing – not to wear anything too bright, anything that would hurt his eyes. But no one said anything about hair. Maybe I googled Chinese mourning rituals, I don’t remember. It was a gradual thing. It made sense not to cut my hair, to grow my hair out. My thick, dark, straight, black, oily hair, the hair that I had inherited from him. Why would I want to cut it off? I wanted to keep as much of him as I could and this part of him, at least the roots, were still alive. I wanted all and any part of him to keep on living.
I can’t remember if I decided to stop washing it too or if that was just a side experiment that happened around the same time. My younger son Bo had an eighth-grade teacher who was also in charge of the Environmental Club. In addition to the weekly recycling sorting activities, her influence meant that he started adolescence with a healthy and critical perspective on basic personal hygiene products like toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant and moisturizer. Shampoo, she said, is a scam, stripping your hair of the natural protection your body produces. Johnson and Johnson, Unilever and their ilk are as bad as drug dealers, getting you addicted to toxic, expensive products. Around the time my father died, Bo was well into a year of not washing his hair, with great results. He had a healthy head of very thick, glossy, dark brown hair.
It’s been one year, five months and twelve days since my father passed away. My hair reaches past my waist now and in addition to forgoing expensive trips to the salon, I rarely wash it. It sounds gross, but it’s turned out to be a surprisingly self-sufficient system. The key is to brush or comb regularly. My sister suggested I try a fine-toothed wooden comb. It has flattened teeth, which I scrape clean with the pointy edge of the toothpick, flicking out the sticky grey mix of sebum and dead skin. The comb is preferable to the more commonly lauded boar bristle brush, of which I also own two. If you think cleaning with a toothpick is gross, it’s worse with boar hair. I have yet to arrive at a satisfactory method to clean the things. Most methods require some variation of scrubbing the hard bristles against the palm of my soapy hand and inevitably require a certain amount of picking between the bristles anyway, either painfully with the tips of my fingers, the end of a comb or the trusty toothpick. Ever since I learned about voodoo dolls and Catholic relics in elementary school, I’ve hesitated before tossing toenails, strands of hair, or bits of dry, picked skin, into the garbage. That was once me, I think. That was once inside me and grew to the outside. Now I think, that was once my mom. That was once my dad.
Dad died close to midnight on February 18th, 2022. The night nurses had just started a few days before, and my brother and sister were settling into another quieter evening after the scheduled medication. We asked the night nurse to come to the bedroom because his breathing didn’t sound quite right and it took her only a few seconds to tell us it was time. Mom had just gone to the basement suite to sleep. The night nurse firmly told me that I should get my mother and that it would happen soon. I remember crying out but cannot recall what words formed. I remember weeping and my nephew rubbing my back. I remember taking off my N95 to blow my nose and seeing a mask full of bright red blood, mindlessly wiping my face and eyes with the back of my hand, blood everywhere.
Several months before he died, I visited him in Vancouver. He was lying down, either for a nap or because he was too tired to be upright. I had just arrived and hopped on top of the blankets. His eyes were closed and he was lying on his side, facing the little barred basement suite window that was eye level with the concrete front walk. You could see shoes and legs and a bit of calf depending on how tall the person was. The walk was a little higher than the sidewalk, so you also see a bit of the lawn and glimpses of people walking by. I lay beside him, hugging him, draping my short legs over his long ones. When young, he was just shy of six feet tall. Skinny in his youth, I recall him as tall, strong and handsome as a middle-aged father.
His laptop was perched on the night table. The Lenovo Notebook with terabytes of storage for the old family slides, prints and photos he’d spent the last few years obsessively digitizing and organizing. It was an occasional sore point for my mom, who resented the removal of prints from albums, who felt neglected as he sat alone for hours, weeks, months at a time, in front of the laptop, click, click, click.
He was listening to a selection of oldies, classics from the 50s mostly. The crooners, pre-war Mandarin classics, folk song renditions and post-war overseas Chinese pop, Theresa Teng, Fei Yu-ching, Tsui Ping, and Carrie Koo. Sometimes he would hum the tunes softly. He never sang the lyrics. His eyes were closed, but he was alert. By then, the neurodegenerative disease had prevented him from sleeping soundly for years. Most days, aside from a lively hour or two during and after dinner, he was sleep deprived and groggy, exhausted and grumpy. He could still direct my driving though, still remind me to be polite to my mother, even when he wasn’t, and recall memories, names and incidents of the past which were lost to the rest of us.
He said quietly, speaking with eyes closed like he often did in the last months, that he had dreamt of Mak (his mother) not long ago. He saw her clearly in his dream, but there was a flash of bright, green light. He’d not seen that before he said, sounding impressed with the additional light show. Maybe I’ll see her soon, he said. And I started to cry. Hugging him tightly, I said between sobs that I knew it was hard for him, but that I needed him still and I wanted him to stay with us longer. That I knew that it was selfish, but that I still needed him. He shook off my sobbing, the blanket up to his shoulders, his eyes still closed. You should not cry, he said, in his sing-song way, the way he would have spoken if I was six again, as if I was whining for a doll in the toy store.
The Barbie movie is out now and I think about how he sewed dresses for the hand-me-down Barbies that I had but didn’t play with much. They weren’t particularly interesting. They didn’t arrive in sparkly boxes or come with clothing even, or at least not that I recall. They were ugly, hard, naked, plastic sticks of dolls with hair chopped off at funny angles. They didn’t have cool nubby, bumpy and bendy bits like the sticks that I played with in the yard. They were nothing like the squishy, plush friends with shiny, glassy eyes I could also play dress up with, but who I could also hold and cuddle, sniff and snuggle, their bigger, soft bodies filling up the space my hugging arms made. Nonetheless, my father sewed perfect little doll-sized 旗袍 qí páo dresses for my Barbies. Stitched together from spare cloth, they were elegant, form-fitting qí páo’s with exceptionally long side slits along the thighs. I remember gazing at his face in wonderment, looking from his large, soft, working hands to his face and back to his sewing. His eyes focused intently on the task, ignoring me, the glow of a lamp behind his head. I had learned what halos were supposed to look like by then. My father, an engineer and physical oceanographer by training, I thought, clearly, could do anything.
But he couldn’t live forever. At least not in his own body, the way I knew, the way I wanted him to. In the last few months of that life, I made a conscious decision to believe in ghosts. If Dad was to die soon, at least I could see him again as a ghost. We could have conversations, I could ask him things, we could hang out. It would be just like pre-internet times when long-distance calling was expensive and conversations had to be kept brief. I read a magazine article recently, written by a widower, describing our contemporary relationship with ghosts, and an older, more accepting stance towards these visual echoes of the dead among the living. In the past, we seemed to be tolerant of ghosts appearing and disappearing in our daily lives. I no longer recall the details, but I remember desperately wanting my new-found belief to have the power to manifest.
It took almost 11 months and a walk by the river with a neighbour I don’t know very well, to realize that Dad was living in me. Slowly, but surely, and in the ways that were possible, I was becoming my father. Maybe in addition to ghosts, I should consider believing in reincarnation, but a specific subcategory of reincarnation. Dad was certainly a staunch atheist for the majority of his life. He ridiculed Buddhist and Taoist rituals, though he valued aspects of certain philosophical approaches to life. I’m still on the fence about reincarnation in the Buddhist sense, but I do believe in evolution.
I don’t know what prompted my neighbour to reach out. One day, I found a note in my mailbox, an invitation for a walk. She shared her condolences and told me that she had lost her mother at a very young age. It drove her crazy that no one wanted to talk about her mom, perhaps out of fear of upsetting her and others, but all she wanted to do was talk about her, she wrote. And the neighbour was happy to listen to what I wanted to share about my father if anything. So I did. As we walked and talked, I had an epiphany.
Everything I was born with, every part of me that was nurtured by him, the characteristics attributed to him, values and qualities that I admired and strove towards, all of these things have grown stronger in me since February 18th, 2022. Preparing for his celebration of life, we thought a lot about the ways to honour his life, his curiosity, his courage and his love of family, on that day and in the future. Inevitably, in the process of honouring his life, we became more like him, we became him. Knowing this, I no longer miss him as much as I did. I know now, that I carry him around inside me, that he is with me all the time. Growing in every cell of my body. I see him in my boys and in my brother and sister too. I’m not sure I will see his ghost any time soon. But I see his spirit in the mirror, hear his voice when I listen for it, and feel and smell his presence every day, as I comb his long, black hair.
*髪發發發! (fà fā fā fā!) are the Chinese characters for hair and prosper, prosper, prosper. 發發發! is a common phrase used to express the desire to prosper and grow wealthy, often used during Lunar New Year. 發 is also the middle name of the author’s father, 顧龍 發.
顧芳 Fong Ku was born on the traditional, unceded territory of the Anishnaabe Algonquin, to parents of Chinese-Indonesian heritage. She is the mother of two sons. She has studied and worked in international development in China, Canada and Germany. Many roads have led her to art and librarianship. When she is not combing her long, black hair, she works in a small art library in Mohkinstsis. She can be found with her favorite hairdo on Instagram @fongkugufang. This is her first piece of creative writing to be published.