Requiem for a Ponytail
Originally Posted on Jewish Herald Voice by Alice Adams
Five days a week for more than 30 years, my husband, Ron, had arisen, showered, and dressed in a coat and tie—the required “uniform” for male educators since he began his career in the late 1950s. Then, after teaching high school math classes all day, he’d change clothes in the locker room to coach football, track, or perform whatever other coaching duties he had.
When Ron retired from public-school administration in 1991, he saw retirement as an opportunity to change his routine as well as his style. Now he could slip into running shorts and a T-shirt. Now he could eliminate his every-two-weeks visits to the barber. Now he could grow a ponytail—his quiet “rage against the machine” and society’s expectations of older men.
When he was 60, we lunched at the local Russian Tearoom (because we had never been). We saw Forrest Gump at the movies, and he had his left ear pierced and a small gold earring inserted.
His transformation from the days he referred to as “being gainfully employed” complete, Ron trained five days a week for an annual triathlon competition. We also ran 5Ks together, swam three days a week, and cycled on weekends. In the interim, we added to our family with the births of several grandchildren. Life was good.
His ponytail continued to grow, streaked with gray and never becoming ungainly but long enough to make his appearance unusual for a senior citizen. One weekend at an out-of-town jazz festival, one of the musicians asked Ron what instrument he played. When Ron admitted he had not one musical bone in his body, the guy responded, “With the earring and ponytail, I could have sworn you were a musician.”
Our grandkids thought grandpa’s ponytail was “cool,” and I think, down deep, Ron was pleased at the statement he was making. It was a rebellion of sorts, but not in a bad way. It was as if, after all those years of meeting the expectations of others dressed in a coat and tie, he finally was free to be who he truly was.
Then, last fall, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his head. The pathology report was long. The diagnosis was “soft tissue sarcoma,” and we were referred to a specialist—a radiation oncologist. Today Ron is halfway through a seven-week course of daily radiation treatments.
The oncologist had mentioned that the hair near the incision site might fall out—a small price for healing. But I don’t think we were prepared when hair lower than his incision began to disappear—not until his barber asked Ron what he wanted to do about his ponytail, which once was thick enough to braid.
The barber showed Ron, using a mirror, how little hair remained. His response came in his usual strong and decisive tone, “Then cut it off.”
The resulting hairstyle was a neatly trimmed and normal nape. The radiation target area, reddened and stretching from front to back on the right side of his head, was now smooth, hairless.
I’ll admit, the loss of my husband’s ponytail made me sad. But if he was grieving, it escaped my radar.
Each time Ron turned his back and I could see the smooth, neatly trimmed hairline, I experienced a shock, wondering—although only for a moment—“Who is that clean-cut person?”
But then he would turn and face me, his smile as infectious as always and as white hot as the series of radiation therapy he calls “his new adventure.”
He’s now wearing caps to keep his head warm, and this also is strange because Ron has never been a lover of hats. I also know he would never consider wearing a hairpiece, so I’ve taken the liberty of ordering a new cap for him. It’s basically a baseball cap with an artificial ponytail sticking out the back.
I’m not sure he’ll wear it, but I hope he does, because somehow, over the last several decades, I had become accustomed to and even fond of Ron’s “bad boy grandpa” look!
Artwork by Gorakart (Romania) deviantart.com
Alice Adams has combined her passions for writing, history, grandparenting, education, and medicine in a career spanning more than three decades. She holds a doctorate in education leadership and taught marketing and business communications at Odessa College and The University of St. Thomas in Houston. She has written for the Houston Chronicle and currently contributes articles to a number of Texas and national publications.