Split Ends

This is a story that begins at the ends: the frayed, thinning, split ends. The mangled roots that tell a tale of irreparable damage and stagnated growth. Why wouldn’t I cut them off? The scissors are in my hand, the inimitable power to sever and the potential energy of choice gripped shakily in my palm. But my finger rests perpetually on the trigger. This is why.

The first time it happened, the scissors were not in my hand. They were in the hands of my fearlessly independent eleven-year-old cousin. I was only six years old, so young that I blew off big decisions like dandelion fluff, unconcerned about where the seeds would land. It wasn’t until after I had heard the harsh snips of the blades and felt the tickling of severed hair brushing past my neck onto the ground that I fully internalized the meaning of irreversible. Irreversible clung to the mangled locks of slightly-damp hair and stared back at me when I glanced at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Irreversible was all that I had lost and could not get back.

When my mother came into the bathroom, her eyes dropped to the ground and took in the tufts of black hair scattered haphazardly across the sterile white tiles on the bathroom floor. Later, she would tell me never to let someone else hold the scissors again. She would tell me about the sacred power of choices and the burden of consequence. But at that moment, she didn’t have to say anything. Her eyes, hollow with the shards of broken expectations, said it all.

Today, when someone asks my mother when I last cut my hair, she’ll act as if she’s forgotten. “Not since birth,” she’ll say, the lie slipping unnoticed through the cracks of her proud, plastered smile. But I know that first haircut hasn’t been discarded from her memory like the locks of hair that she had swept up with the dustpan and tossed into the trash bin. Beneath the pretense, I can see her eyes narrowing with the same shameful discernment, as if I were a puzzle that she couldn’t quite piece together.

That was how it always was with my mother. She would never tell you anything, and yet you would already know. As the years passed by, and my hair grew longer and longer, I became an expert at reading in between the lines of the homilies she would impart whenever her moral smoke alarm went off. Never do the wrong things. Always make good choices. I quickly learned that Always and Never were the king and queen in my mother’s realm. Soon, I became a loyal subject, and the Absolutes restricted me at every turn.

Getting a haircut after the first debacle fell under the domain of Never, even as my hair transformed into a disobedient cloud of tangles that only grew more irrepressible the more I ignored it. Every week, my mother and I would sit down in front of the educational children’s TV programs on PBS, armed with a fine-toothed comb to inflict pain and a bowl of ice cream to lessen it. Each time, I would beg her to cut it all off. And each time, she would refuse, continuing to tug persistently at the tangles without offering an explanation.

After a particularly painful hair-combing session, I realized that I was sick of my mother’s power to trap me between the stubborn walls of Absolutes. I was sick of her fingers knocking the scissors out of my hands as soon as I had picked them up, hovering anxiously over me to make sure that I wouldn’t cut myself. I wanted to test my own power for once. So I took out the sewing scissors and my beloved American Girl doll. As I grasped the scissors tightly, I felt an electrical current coursing through my veins. In a surge of anger, I chopped off the doll’s synthetic black hair. The plastic strands fell to the ground noiselessly, and the doll continued to stare at me with her glassy-eyed complacency, unconcerned that I had just taken everything away from her. Suddenly, the blades felt like poison ivy under my trembling grip. I let go, and the scissors clattered to the floor. They had defeated me this time.

At that moment, my mother came into the room. She looked at me knowingly, as if she had foreseen this all along. “It’s so easy just to cut things off, isn’t it?” she said quietly. “But things don’t always turn out the way we expect, and we have to live with the consequences of every choice we make.”

I finally realized why my mother had refused to let me cut my hair. After that day, her fear of the irreconcilable was passed down to me. Like a virus, it only grew, spreading to every aspect of my life. Every time I was faced with any decision, I would panic, remembering the tufts of hair on the tiled floor of my cousin’s bathroom and the doll with mangled hair who I never played with again. Even for the simplest of choices, my mother’s words echoed in my head. So easy just to cut things off. I became so scared of making the wrong choice that I ceased making choices at all. Like an overrun garden, my hair grew out of active neglect. And that’s when the split ends began to appear.

It was gradual at first. But after a while, it got out of hand. Every end became a split end. I was perpetually stranded at a fork in the road. The longer I waited, the more damage I was inflicting. By dodging the burden of consequence, I was only orchestrating my own ruin.

And so here I am again. At the ends. With all of the power, but none of the will. So easy just to cut things off. But in reality, it is so difficult. The scissors are in my hand.

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