Last week I watched my grandfather shave my grandmother’s head. It was done tenderly, sans the usual bravado of a teenager getting a buzz cut or the exhilarating sense of sacrifice accompanying the World’s Greatest Shave.
You see, my grandmother had neither fashion nor charity in mind when she made the decision to shave. Rather, her hair has started to fall out as a side effect of the chemotherapy treatment she is currently receiving, and she made the practical decision to get rid of it sooner rather than later.
My presence at the haircut was accidental; a coincidence that it occurred the afternoon I unexpectedly dropped in to Ward 9. Like many grandchildren, I do not visit as often as I should, and it seemed somehow perverse that despite my prolonged absence prior to the discovery of cancer that I should be in attendance for a moment so pregnant with meaning.
The shaving process was at once startlingly makeshift and deeply ritualistic. The basic set up— a sheet on the floor, a chair, another sheet around my grandmother’s shoulders— seemed far too casual to be occurring within the enforced sterility of a hospital ward.
My grandfather questions whether she wants to do it today. “How about tomorrow morning?” he asks. But my grandmother, only in her mid-sixties, puts her hand to her head and pulls gently. She holds out her fist to reveal a clump of wispy, greying hairs. “I want to do it now, before it all starts to fall out,” she says. Everyone agrees.
My grandfather prepares the cordless razor with careful, yet shaking, hands. He has done this once before. “I sat on a chair, with everybody around me, and I sobbed and sobbed last time,” my grandmother says with a smile. “This time will be easier.”
It is. There are a few quiet groans as clumps of hair fall onto the white sheet, but no sobbing. A joke is made about how my grandfather used to shear sheep. “I ain’t no sheep!” my grandmother quips back.
We’re mostly chatting, but a few times my grandmother stares out the window of her room, with Sydney Tower visible on the skyline and I wonder whether she is straining to see her increasingly bald reflection in the glass or pondering the unfortunate turn of bodily events that have again confined her to a hospital bed.
Unperturbed by the arrival of dinner or passing nurses, my grandfather is utterly absorbed in his unconventional task. He gently razes away at his wife’s scalp until he is satisfied with the length. When he is done, my grandmother’s best friend takes over, bathing the newly prickled head in soapy water, removing the minuscule specks of hair from her neck. Then she tells my grandmother that she looks beautiful.
My grandmother feels her head. “It feel like sandpaper!” she complains.
The woman in the bed across from my grandmother, who looks surprisingly robust despite her smooth, shiny head, says that it looks good. In what seems a bizarre compliment, we all praise my grandmother’s symmetrical dome, agreeing that there were certainly no bumps to be seen.
Soon after the hair and sheets have been packed away, I take my leave, promising to return. As I exit, I wave a tentative farewell to a young woman with thick brown hair who has been watching the whole affair from the bed diagonally opposite. I wonder if she, too, has just begun chemotherapy— whether she is watching her future.