I was thirty-nine years old when I saw my father’s beard for the first time. It happened quite by accident – he’d gone to the barber, asked for a close shave, and the beard he’d worn since I was a baby suddenly became this close-cropped fuzz covering the lower third of his face. Still a beard, if you wanted to get technical with the definition, but thirty-nine years is a considerable length of time to go without seeing a man’s chin. Its sudden appearance, as a visible entity behind the hair, made it a thing people commented on when they saw him.
I had my own brush with facial hair when I was twenty-two. It should be noted that I didn’t inherit my father’s propensity for thick, chin-hiding facial hair. Mine grows in patches, leaves broad swathes of the cheek unaffected. When I did grow a beard, at the suggestion of a woman I was dating, it mostly grew underneath my chin rather than on it.
I was not suited to facial hair, but I kept the beard until the end of that particular relationship, and I have never enjoyed the act of shaving quite as much as I did the day we finally broke up.
I would tell you my father, without a beard, does not look my father, but there are so many lies in that statement that it bears only the faintest whiff of truth. He doesn’t look like my father, with his chin visible, but the man sitting in the lounge chair with the freshly short beard was already so different from the father of my memories.
My father is in his sixties. He’s had a heart bypass, takes a series of meds for Parkinson’s disease and problems with his blood. He’s thinner than I can ever remember him being. He has trouble standing and moving, has trouble speaking at a volume the rest of us can hear. He’s not dying, specifically, but he has reached the point where the inevitability of death is always right there. There is no longer any way to pretend that he will not be gone, one day.
The father in my memory isn’t a big man, but he is vital; a man who is strong and omnicompetent, underneath the omnipresent beard. He’s a man who surfed and played squash, all through my childhood; a man who built coffee tables and fishponds and canoes in his garage; a man who read The Hobbit to the kids in his classroom, and sang while he played guitar,
An ex-girlfriend once met my father and compared him to a dwarf. “He’s the kind of man you expect to fighting goblins with an axe and a beer,” she said.
And he was, back then, before illness started taking from him. He already had the beard.
There was a time, when I was younger, that people insisted the only difference between my father and I was the beard. Once, when I was seven or eight, a teacher actually put me in a fake beard to test the theory. These are the kinds of things that happen when you’re raised by teachers, and the people responsible for your education are also your parent’s friends.
It was assumed, perhaps, that the beard was inevitable. That one day I would grow one and the transformation would be complete. Instead, if I skip shaving in the morning it’s unlikely people will notice. If I skip shaving three days in a row, I start to develop the first hints of stubble.
There are men who can grow facial hair, and those who cannot. My father is the former, and I am not.
It shouldn’t be a surprise when your parents grow older. It’s right there, in stories. In television shows and films. Time marches on and people get older.Your parents become different people than you remember from your childhood.
Stories try to prepare you for that reality, but somehow, it’s not enough. Somehow, it’s still a surprise when you see your father’s chin, and it’s something that keeps bugging you long after his beard has grown back. Warned is not the same as prepared. It’s not the same thing as ready
And you adapt. You get to know the man who exists now, who is not the man you remember. And it is sad, sometimes. And happier, sometimes. And different, always different, even on the days you catch a glimpse of the father you remember in the man you talk to now.
You learn to embrace the duality. The man who is still your father, but is not the father of your childhood memories. The man who has become someone else, as everyone always does.
When I shave in the morning, I study my face. I notice the first grey hairs and the wrinkles around my eyes, the little patches of stubble that I missed yesterday because I still don’t shave with anything resembling a level of competence. It took me years to learn the very basics: shave with the direction of the hair; use shaving cream to soften the hair before you apply the razor; start with the cheeks and leave the chin for last.
It feels absurd that this is something that I still need to figure out, but it is. I do not shave well, and I cannot grow a beard. Not really.
So, instead, I study my chin. Try to imagine what it would be like, if I suddenly grew one of those beards I covet.
And somehow, I can’t quite make that image work. At worst, I can picture another patchy goatee, itchy and horribly uncomfortable. At best, I picture the rest of my life spent clean-shaven and comfortable.
Neither feels like much of a victory. Not today. Not right now.
So I rinse my face and get on with my day, rubbing my thumb over my face in search of the stubble I missed this morning in the hopes that I will finally – finally! – be completely clean-shaven when I leave the house.