A Family Affair

I imagined many things when my children were little but I never envisaged a day when they would take part in a hair-shaving ceremony — for me.

Charlie was seven and Lucie was four. We’d been living in Barbados for a year and loved the lifestyle of sun, sea and sand. The children had embraced all things Bajan: eating flying fish and drinking fresh coconut water, becoming accustomed to seeing green monkeys in the trees and tiny geckos on the walls of our house. The toughest decisions we ever had to make were deciding which beach to go to at the weekend!

A diagnosis of breast cancer changed everything. In one moment, their carefree, idyllic childhood was dealt a blow that forced them to deal with a situation many adults have trouble coping with. Right from the beginning, my husband Steve and I made the decision to be honest. We realized that hiding the truth or covering up would only result in them imagining scenarios all of their own — possibly even worse ones than hearing the truth. We learnt very quickly how to answer the toughest questions with all the skill of a diplomat!

We also discovered that involving the children was a terrific way for them to feel part of the healing process, although it led to some unusual situations and funny pictures for the family photo albums. My particular favorite is the day we had my hair shaving ceremony. Losing my hair was not only traumatic for me. For the children, it would be a visual reminder that I was ill and frightening too; a bald mum is not an everyday sight, after all. Knowing that Steve was struggling to come to terms with it told us the kids could have an even tougher transition.

As my hair began to fall, I cried my tears at home while the little ones were at school. I knew I needed to grieve at the loss of my hair but that I couldn’t let the children see the extent of my grief without frightening them. As great clumps began to drop out, Steve agreed to shave it off and we came up with the idea of making a game of it. It may sound bizarre but at the time, it made perfect sense. Kids take their lead from their parents; Steve and I hoped that by having a “hair-shaving ceremony” we could demystify the process of me losing my hair and make it a family affair.

Everybody was assigned a role. Steve was the Official Hair Shaver. Charlie was Official Photographer. Lucie was Official Hair Picker Upper. I sat on a chair on the balcony, looking out over the vista of the St George valley as my beautiful long hair fell around me. I can’t say I didn’t have to gulp back my tears because that wouldn’t be true. But by having to laugh and make a game of it, I found myself caught up in the moment and realized that, actually, we were having fun in a strange way. Charlie was snapping photos from every angle and Lucie was gathering up handfuls of hair and flinging them off the balcony in wild abandon, squealing with delight as the hair caught in the breeze and sailed down the valley. The kids found a mirror so I could watch the progress, laughing at how funny I looked with a shaved head on one side and long hair on the other.

When I look back at the photos from that day, what I notice more than anything are the smiles on all our faces. I see a woman with a buzz cut like GI Jane whose face reflects a mother filled with love and pride. I see my husband putting aside his own grief so he could make a really tough situation as easy as possible for the children and myself. In Charlie and Lucie, I see two young children who were embracing change and meeting adversity head on with all the innocence and passion of youth — whose trust and faith in us as parents remained strong, no matter what.

Most of all, I see a family made stronger, I see love, I see hope for the future.

Briony Jenkins

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