She had slept on the floor of her parents’ house four nights in a row and was looking forward to sinking into her mattress, cuddled among the duvet and pillows. Before her shower, she unzipped a black toiletries bag kept in the medicine cabinet and dug out a set of clippers. Running her fingers along the small comb, she walked to find her husband.
He was sprawled out on the couch, eyes trained to the television but vacant, not paying attention to what was on the screen. He didn’t notice her, until she was a couple of strides away. She cradled his foot as she sat down, connecting with him without being too intrusive. He was also tired, she could tell. It had been some long days for him, too – splitting his time between his office and her business, checking in on the kids, while being present and available for any errands her family needed.
“Babe, before bed, can you…” she raised the clippers, “shave it off?”
He looked at her but blinked at her words, “Say again?”
“I need to have it cut,” she lifted her hand and tugged at the silk scarf to let a group of thick twists fall down to the middle of her back.
He snorted, “Don’t be silly. I’m beat, hey. Are the kids asleep?” The ease with which he moved from topic to topic in one conversation always amazed her. She often wondered if he had an attention issue. She had to bring him back.
“Babe, I need to do this. I have to cut my hair.”
He sighed as he heaved himself upwards, tossing the remote control aside, “But we don’t have to do it. It’s not… necessary.”
She didn’t think she’d want to do this so soon after her father’s death. They’d laid him to rest yesterday and had just begun all the official requirements with his estate. The conversations with the elders had been easy – her father had laid everything out clearly for all to follow. He had spoken openly to all relatives about what should be done when he died. There were no arguments over assets. She and her siblings sat quietly to hear the elders talk through everything and then, when it was over, they lined up to bid them goodbye. The men in Papa’s family would clear out his clothes and Mother would oversee the cleaning of her house while her children ensured all paperwork was signed, stamped, and filed as needed. So far, a clean process.
He died and her existence shifted. The rock of her life had suddenly been sucked out of the world. She had never seen her mother spend so long huddled over in tears, body shaking with silent sorrow. Never before had she lost the words to encourage or express affection for her mother. She looked in her sister’s eyes, saw fear and realised that neither of them knew where they were going in this new life without him and with a mother as broken as they were.
She sighed, “Please. I need to do this.”
“You don’t. Why?”
“It’s our custom. After death of a close family member, you cut your hair. It’s tradition.”
“Aww c’mon, babe. Since when do we do tradition?” He was right, they had never actively followed the customs and norms of their tribes. It infuriated his relatives and they blamed her for his lapses. She remained steadfast, knowing that if her parents had wanted the traditions, they would have raised her in that way. They chose not to, and that was fine with her. So why was she holding clippers clinging onto this custom?
“Honey, please. I need to do this. Please do it for me.”
He shifted further away from her and ironically combed his fingers through his own thick fade. “Babe, look, you don’t need to do this. Your dad wouldn’t even want you do to it. Your mother, maybe she will because she’s his wife. Was. You know what I mean. But you and Yose and Malili, you guys don’t need to do this.”
“Needing and wanting are two different things. And I want to do this.”
“Well, I don’t want you to!” It came out too strong and shocked them both. They hardly raised their voices at each other, but had learned over their nine years, how to reach the other and share so they could understand each other and grow. Tonight, was rare. And she felt something crack.
“I want to do this. For my father. My father,” she looked him square in the eyes as she emphasised her father. He heard her, knowing that this was about the man who built the foundation of who she was, who had launched her into every success she had ever enjoyed, who she loved the most, who she depended upon more than anyone.
They looked at each other for a minute, then he rose, clicking off the television. “I think we’re both tired. Let’s talk about this tomorrow.”
She let him get to the door, then stopped him, “It isn’t a discussion or group decision. I want to do this and thought you would want to help me with it. Because it’s important to me.”
“But why would you do that to yourself?” he shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“What do you mean?”
How could he express that it’d be an awful mistake for her public image? She was only twenty-eight when she established her recruitment firm and landed large corporate clients that helped propel her approach and skills-building philosophy to unemployed youths. From that, she won awards and gained recognition. Three years after that, she built her cosmetics business and slowly developed a large social media following. Her followers cared about her image. Companies that associated with her did so partly because of how she looked. She had invested time and energy to build this following but now wanted to throw it all away. It was a ridiculous thought. No disrespect meant to her father, he was worthy of such honours, but what did it really matter if no one in the family expected that of her?
He looked at her thick twists, bulky and shiny, framing her beautiful round face. Alone, the face was stunning. With the hair, the hair elevated her beauty. He couldn’t picture what her face would look like without the ever-changing styles she fashioned. Her hair was a talking point with many people she met, just as much as her businesses, their children and family. He tried to imagine her without it, but he had never known her without it. And neither had the world. “You need a good night’s sleep, baby. Come to bed.” He waited for her to get up to join him, but the seconds lengthened to a minute and more.
She gripped her hands in knots. Her breathing was deep and heavy, battling an eruption of emotion. She cast her eyes downwards, breaking contact with him, plunging them deeper and further apart. She could sense his impatience and annoyance. Her hand reached for the clippers on the couch, her fingers rubbed the hard, cool body. She shifted the power switch to check if the LED battery was charged, scolding herself for not checking earlier. It buzzed in her hand as it came to life. She turned it off. She knew she could do it herself, but it wouldn’t be perfect in all places. She deliberately opted to do it at home to avoid the reactions from inside the salon at seeing a woman chop off her plentiful coils. She had hoped having her head in the care of the person she trusted most would make it easy, but what a shock it had been. She wondered what his resistance was really about. He had loved Papa like his own father and understood the old man shared a close relationship with all his children. Hair was just hair, it came and went as it was supposed to; whatever she lost today would be back in time. But her father would not. Why didn’t he see this?
She rose and crossed the room to meet him. She took his hand, eased it open, and placed the machine on his palm, “Why not?”
“You post videos all the time and spend hours shooting pictures, commenting on what you wear and how you look. How will you do that without… hair?”
“There are wigs!”
“You don’t do wigs. Everyone knows that! Companies pay you because you use their products on your hair,” he reached out to touch it but she turned her head away.
“They’ll understand. It’s a custom.”
“One we don’t follow.” With enough strength to cover the distance, he tossed the clippers back onto the couch. She roared. A deep, dark growl that filled the space between them. She spun around and around, arms high and propelling the noise from within. As she spun, her thoughts swirled through her head, colliding with emotion. How will anyone know? How will they know what has happened to me? How will they see what I have lost if I’m walking around with all this?
Dizzy, she stopped. Her throat was scratched and raw. Her voice was hoarse, “People look at my hair and love it. I want them to know I’ve lost something.” He turned away, falling into shadow as he turned off the lights he passed along the corridor. She sunk back on her haunches, and then curled herself on her side, knees pulled up, as she would have done decades ago sleeping securely in his house, their home. She closed her eyes, and saw him standing next to Mother, arm draped around her shoulder. It was the last afternoon she had seen him, before the stroke left him incapacitated in the hospital. She’d visited with the twins and they’d played vigorously for hours, as if they knew – as if he knew – it was his last time with his grandchildren. At the end of the visit, Papa and Mother watched her car pull out of the gate. Now, Mother would stand there alone. That image never appeared in her mind. She squeezed her eyes tight, shook her head back and forth, the bulky twists cushioning the motion. Soon, her breathing became even and soft, and sleep took over her thoughts.
In the darkest hour of the early morning, a shiver ran through her body, shocking her out of sleep. The light they’d left on pierced her eyes and it took a minute to get her bearings. Then she remembered how she had ended up here, and a deep sigh sent the sorrow through her again. The clippers still sat on the couch. She crawled toward them, cradled them. She flipped the switch and let the vibrations buzz through her hand and arm. It was time.
She entered their bedroom, opened a drawer and pulled out the shiny hairdresser shears she hardly used. She hesitated at their bathroom door but left it, going instead to the children’s bathroom. She positioned herself in front of the mirror and looked at her twists. She smiled at them, lovingly held them. Then raised the scissors and chopped. And chopped again. And chopped. Letting the interwoven plaits fall, fall, fall to her feet. The rugged afro that emerged sent her reeling back to herself long ago. Boarding school, where the rules were severe and her shaggy hair made her feel ugly. Mother told her not to worry. But Papa took her aside and said, “How you look now is completely different to how you looked when you were born. But the thing I love that is the same – from that day to this – is how you look in here,” his index finger pointed to her temple and stopped at her chest, “that is you. That is the you who will be great at this school.” She beamed at him that day, comforted, happy and secure.
In the bathroom, she remembered that she had carried this simple affirmation through all the years. But today it crumbled. Was she so blinded by pain that she had forgotten the thing that he had loved all these years? She was putting her needs above one principle he held. But wasn’t that what she needed to let him go? Her legs gave way, she sunk to the floor. Crouched low, she wailed. She hadn’t been able to vocalise her grief as the coffin sunk lower and lower into the ground. Those tears were silent. These tears were fresh and loud. She let her voice and the tears flow. A minute later, the door swung open. He stood there in bare feet, chest heaving beneath a white vest, desperately worried about the crying that had penetrated his sleep. As soon as he saw her on the floor, he dropped to join her, wrapping his arms around her and letting her untidy head fall to his shoulder.
She cried for her father. He cried for her pain. Then he lifted the clippers. He gently positioned her head in front of him. He moved his legs around her body, to let her lean against his knee. In both of his large hands, he held the back of her head and gently straightened it so he could see the full shape of her head, a fuzzy uneven afro. He held the clippers in one hand, squeezed her shoulder with the other as if preparing her for this final action. He slid the switch on, the buzz taking over the whole room, and she inhaled. He slid the buzzing comb into her hair and eased it through the thick black coils. They fell away, landing on her shoulders, his hand, the floor. Soon, everything around them was flecked with hair. The roundness of her head came into view and he smiled. He went deeper and deeper until her brown scalp was slightly visible through the soft black bristles that remained.
When he switched off the clippers, her tears had almost dried and were mixed with tiny black shavings. She wiped her face. Sniffled. And finally breathed. In one fluid motion, he rose and lifted her up but turned her around so she could face him. First. Before the mirror. Her eyes were sad, but hopeful. He brushed more hair from her face. He nodded and a joyful smile spread across his face. He kissed her lips. Hugged her. Turned her around to see her new self. The self that was always loved the same. She gasped. And sighed, then laughed, unable to believe who she saw in the mirror. She nodded, turned back and threw her arms around her husband to hold him tight. As they squeezed each other, a warmth spread through her body.
It was comfort and peace. It was a way to start over. And it was right.