Parenting the Fallen: Why I Flew to Vegas to Join a Band of Bald Warrior Women

By Timaree Marston

Three and a half years ago, I lived through every parent’s worst nightmare: my beautiful 3-year-old boy, Caemon, was ripped from my arms by a rare form of leukemia called JMML.

Shortly after he died, as I began searching for meaning behind this loss, I stumbled upon a group of women called 46 Mommas, who all shave their heads to raise money for pediatric cancer research through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. They were all cancer moms like me, some of whom had lost their children to cancer, others whose children had survived, and others whose kids were still in treatment.

I remember seeing their bald heads and brave smiles and thinking that these were people I needed to know. Now, three years later, I was finally able to meet my tribe in Las Vegas.

As women from all walks of life, all body types and beauty types, the 46 Mommas have one equalizing factor: pediatric cancer. After the shave, that factor is externalized.

The Mommas look like a tribe of warrior women, and for good reason. All of us know the blood-chilling fear of a cancer diagnosis. All of us know the agony of watching our children poked and prodded, the helplessness of watching our kids losing their own hair. We know the culture of hospital life, clinic life. We know far too many names of medications, how to flush central lines, how to read lab reports. We know how to hope when it seems no hope is left to be had, how to be brave in the face of insurmountable fears. And we have somehow survived it all, come back from the most horrific of journeys to tell tales of the courageous, inspiring, hopeful, and far-too-often tragic tales of our beautiful children.

My decision to join the 46 Mommas in Las Vegas this year was not easy. I have a 1-year-old baby girl, and going to Las Vegas would mean leaving her behind for more than 48 hours. People wondered why I would do this just to shave my head, why I couldn’t just hold an event at home. For those who haven’t lost a child, it can be hard to understand that it is through events like this that I continue to parent my son. These acts of remembrance are how I connect with him: telling his story, hearing his name spoken, raising money to support JMML research — these things help me make meaning of Caemon’s absence from this world.

If he were here, I might be taking his 6-year-old self to camp outs or on school field trips. If he were here, it would be natural for me to spend time away from his baby sister to parent him. But he is not here, so instead, I have to find other ways to continue being Caemon’s mommy.

So many mothers who lose their children to cancer take what might seem like extreme measures to keep parenting their kids, engaging in experiences we never would have imagined if our children were still living. I know cancer moms who skydive and bungee jump, others who run marathons, climb mountains, take up dancing. Plenty of us get tattoos commemorating our kids; we set up memorial benches and plant memorial trees, set up foundations in our children’s names. We purchase headstones, scatter ashes, write eulogies. And some of us take off our hair, all in the name of continuing to parent the children we miss with every cell in our momma bodies.

I can’t say that my son would approve of what I am doing though. As a 3-year-old boy who had been thrown into the world of medications and weird hospital rooms, nurses and doctors needing full access to his body, and a life turned upside down, he needed me to be his constant.

When I asked him if I could shave my head to look like him, he told me no, and I respected that. Caemon did not want to be bald, and even as a 3-year-old, he felt self-conscious of himself after he lost all of his hair. Early in my son’s treatment, a nurse who was known for his brilliant caricatures of his patients drew a picture of Caemon with his bald head, and when Caemon looked at it, he yelled that he didn’t like it, and he threw the picture. This was unusual behavior for Caemon, but we soon learned it was the baldness that bothered him. He didn’t look like himself, and he didn’t want to be reminded of that.

It took a good deal of effort to empower Caemon in his baldness. As he walked the hallways, we would show him other bigger kids who had his same “hospital haircut.” And soon he began to notice that some of his favorite nurses, the only superheroes he knew, were also bald. He would ask to touch their heads when they came in to care for him, announcing with a delighted smile, “You have a hospital haircut like me!” Simply feeling like he looked a bit more like them, like he was wearing the uniform of the very best people in the world, made Caemon that much more comfortable.

Caemon eventually wanted to emulate his heroes with his baldness. Now I want to look like mine: my beautiful son, the countless children who still fight this dreaded disease every day, and this group of warrior mothers who shed their locks year after year for St. Baldrick’s. If going bald is what it takes to get the funding we need to save our kids, to improve their outcomes, to see the end of childhood cancer, then that is what we are going to do. I have to think my boy would have been proud of that.

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