My 16-year-old daughter Elizabeth stood in the open front door, red-faced and silent. She had just returned from a sleepover at a friend’s house, and was hiding her hair with her hoodie.
“You okay, honey?” With two teenagers at home, that question was always on my lips. Every day the news smothered us with tales of girls being abducted while jogging, drug and alcohol overdoses at unchaperoned parties, teen depression and suicide. How were we supposed to keep our children safe?
Elizabeth met my gaze and slowly removed her hood. My mouth fell open at the site of her head: Globs of thick blonde curls stuck out like bushy wild islands in a sea of uneven, scissored scalp.
I hate thinking about my initial reaction. I wasn’t a perfect mom, like June Cleaver, the doting tv mother on “Leave it to Beaver” – cooing her often repeated response to some disaster, “Aw, Beave, now how in the world did this happen?”
I hissed out, with perfectly spaced pauses between each word, as if I had been rehearsing them all morning. “How dare you! What a stupid, stupid thing you’ve done.”
Elizabeth gasped and turned away, covering her face with her hands.
I regretted everything, instantly. Those were my father’s words, not mine. I thought about the truckload of stupid things I had done at 16; the tears I had cried at Dad’s berating responses. I won’t be my father. I won’t. I stepped forward. “I’m sorry.” I hugged Elizabeth, and she relaxed in my arms and began to tell the story of her botched haircut.
She hadn’t planned to cut her hair that day. The truth was, she had been complaining about her hair for the hundredth time, and one thing lead to another: scissors were located in a drawer; her friend’s bedroom door was locked; their voices hushed.
“And then she freaked out and refused to finish the job,” Elizabeth moaned, pulling at her remaining hair. In that moment I saw her clearly. No longer my angelic child with the halo of curls. She was ready to be someone else. How had I missed this?
I thought about the hair on that bedroom floor, imagined the curls slowly falling to the carpet like petals. My head swam with memories of a younger Elizabeth: running through the house as a toddler, her first word on her lips, like a treasure, “Button!”; a barefoot three-year-old standing on her daddy’s new surfboard as it lay on the carpet, arms out, feet in perfect formation as if she were already catching a wave; a kindergartener confidently grinning into the camera as she sat astride a massive Palomino mare.
I looked at her again. My breathing slowed. What was the big deal? We walked into the bathroom. Staring at her reflection in the mirror, I said, “Let’s call a salon. I’m sure they’ll – ”
“No! You do it. Shave it all off, Mom. Please!” I imagined a razor in my hand, drawing blood at my first attempt. No way. I couldn’t do it.
“You can do this Mom, I know you can.” Oh lord, she was giving me a pep talk! Motherhood is such a delicate balancing act. One minute you’re guiding a child, the next you’re her student. Sometimes motherhood squeezes you into tight, uncomfortable places you never imagined possible. It brings up old wounds, and all too often leaves you wondering if life will ever be normal again.
On that day I could dig in my heels and risk the chance of making everything worse, or decide to stop the chatter in my head and listen.
I listened. My hands shook, but I snipped off her remaining locks of hair. Then came the first tentative razor’s pass. My confidence grew with each stroke as Elizabeth hunched over the sink, hands splayed on the tile countertop, peeking into the mirror at my progress; trusting me.
When we were finished we laughed and I told her that one day I’d write a book called Hair Grows Back. The images of that day will be forever with me: the shape of her beautiful skull. How her eyes seemed bigger. Bluer. When dressed up, how elegant she looked without hair. More importantly, I’ll never forget her trust and determination; the intimacy of sliding that razor over her beautiful scalp.