It was a sunny Friday afternoon just a few weeks ago. The smell of beauty products hit my nose as soon as I opened the door to the salon and the promised land of a long awaited and much needed pedicure was right in front of me. As soon as my feet touched the bubbly warm water, I felt an enormous relief; the kind that I haven't felt in months...or maybe even longer. “Ahhhh, I can sit and do nothing for the next 45 minutes”. One minute, two minutes, three minutes....I decided to throw in some useless information into my brain, as if there wasn’t enough of it in there already. I opened a Cosmopolitan magazine. I was in for a treat: mindless, silly, uncomplicated indulgence. Or so I thought…
Angela, my manicurist started doing my toes. It felt great. “Steals for under $25”, said the cover story in the “shopping section” of the magazine. I looked around. The salon was pretty full. Three women sat down just a few feet away from where I was. All of them had their hair colored. All were wearing the special dark robes they give you at the salon to make sure you don’t mess up your clothes. The women kind of resembled nuns. All three looked fairly young, yet all somehow looked tired (puffy eyes, irritated by the hair colorant?) Unexpectedly, like it often happens in life, in the midst of my mindless indulgence, their conversation (in which I became accidental participant) shook me to the core and I can’t stop thinking about it ever since.
The talk among the three of them and Angela was about a funeral. They were discussing the price of the flowers, transportation from the morgue to the burial place, how the prices for everything went up since the years past, how to choose the best rabbi, etc. I wasn't paying too close attention, trying to concentrate on being in my thoughtless, happy, empty-minded state, until I heard one of the women say, "He could die today or in a few days...it's unknown. His only luck is that he is on enough morphine to sedate a horse". Then I stopped reading and looked up because I realized that the funeral is being planned for someone who hasn’t died yet.
“I hope she is talking about a great-grandma who is 120”, I thought. And my pedicurist, Angela interrupted that wishful thinking, looked at me and said, “Can you image, her husband isn’t even 40…just awful.”
“Your customer here is a bit confused, Angela.” Laughed the woman whose husband was dying. With her hair covered in dark colorant, she looked like a bird covered in oil during an oil spill. She turned her gaze to me, “You are probably wondering, what on earth are these crazies doing in a hair salon at a time like this.” And before I could protest, she continued. “Well, I’ll tell you. The last year of my life has been sheer joy and sheer hell. Yes, it happens. There are always blimps of joy even in the sheerest of hell. I’ve done enough praying, crying and begging God to intervene. Now I surrendered. But, I haven’t lost my sense of dignity and womanhood.” Then she stopped, unable to continue and her friend picked up her train of thought. “This is a funeral party of sorts.” I just stared. The future widow interrupted her and said, looking directly into my eyes, “When they ascend…you know, when the soul ascends…I heard that they kind of hover around for a bit. Certainly, for the funeral. So, I figured, if he looks down on me from above, he is going to notice my ugly gray hair roots! And just won’t stand for it!” They started laughing. It was a heavy, sad, sarcastic, hopeless laughter, but laughter nevertheless…and I joined in.
Then the woman pulled something out of her bag. “My son is 7. He has been writing letters to his dad…some of them are prayers.” She took a deep breath. “This one, for example, says ‘Daddy, all of my friends want you to get better. If we all wish really, really hard, you are going to be okay. I just know it. Love, Simon”. We all passed the letter to each other. It smelled like crayons. “I’ve been preparing him for the possibility that his dad might not be okay. But how do you prepare a 7-year-old for something like this?” She looked at each one of us, slowly moving her gaze from face to face, clearly in search of an answer, which of course, none of us had.
The hair-dresser came over “Time for your wash sweetie.” He held the woman’s hand, "like a good understanding doctor”, I thought.
“Here”, she said “while I am getting washed, you can read more of his letters…” She handed them to me. What was to be my moment to indulgence, became a significant moment for introspection, empathy and profound sadness. The letters were truly heartbreaking, innocent, and hopeful. I was thinking that she must share them with someone, with many people, if possible, because holding on to them on her own must be unbearable. To be the sole witness to the trauma the cruel fate is inflicting on her child must be too much of a burden.
“All done” said Angela. I stared at her unable to comprehend what she was talking about. Then I noticed the magazine still on my lap, on the same page where I left it. The pedicure was over.
I was searching for words. Is there nothing at all that could be said? I didn’t want to leave just like that. What could I do? What could I say? Things were popping into my head, as I was putting on my shoes. “I am so sorry for what you are going through”, “May I come to the funeral?”, “Is there anything I can do to help?”, “Your hair looks great!”….and an on and on like that.
Her hair now dry and eyes less puffy, I noticed that the future widow was incredibly beautiful. Her face reminded me of the medieval representations of Madonna – dark hair, deeply set eyes, defined eye brows, and fair skin. As I was walking out, I handed her back the letters. We looked at each other and I just shook my head. And she nodded, as if to say “Yes, I know, what can you say”. Then she smiled and said, “This is like the hair color for the soul – for his soul and mine”. And I smiled back, with the heavy sad smile, but a smile nevertheless.
A few days later I called Angela. She said that the woman’s husband died a few days before. All I could think about, after I hung up the phone, was the fact that there is a little 7 year old boy starting on a journey into the unknown world, a world where even if you wish really, really hard, some things are just impossible to fix. And there is a young Madonna, who somehow needs to pull herself together and make it all okay for her 7 year old boy.