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The Most Beautiful Picture I'd Ever Seen

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by Allan Shedlin

(Distributed by The New York Times/Hearst News Service, 12/29/11)

© 2011 Hearst Newspapers


CHEVY CHASE, MD. – The “before” and “after,” back-to-back E-mail subject lines were intriguing. They demanded I read them immediately.

The “before” photo of my 11-year-old grandson, Bob, and his classmate, Charlie, with baseball caps nonchalantly hanging in their hands at their sides, called attention to their cascading tresses so important to 5th grade boys. Their awkward, resigned smiles were the poses of camera-reluctant male ‘tweens.

The “after” photo of the same duo with heads freshly shorn was jarring. With piles of hair surrounding their feet, they looked like plucked chickens caught in the headlights. Their shell-shocked grins suggested a combination of relief and disbelief that they had shaved their heads in solidarity for their classmate, Gil, who had begun to lose his hair four weeks into his radiation/chemotherapy treatments for a recently diagnosed malignant brain tumor.

Despite the uncomely look of miniature, would-be military recruits, this was the most beautiful picture I’d ever seen.

It was the type of inspiring beauty that immediately caused my eyes to well-up, accompanied by uncontrollable guttural whimpers that preceded the tears. Bawling followed shortly thereafter – the kind that comes when sadness and happiness converge to release an intensity of spontaneous emotion.

The tears were those of grandfatherly pride prompted by my grandson’s gesture of breathtaking sensitivity. They were also the tears of heartbreak for his friend’s mighty battle ahead. And they were the tears of realization of how lucky it is for Bob to have lived 11 years and been spared this kind of sadness. I also grieved for the youthful innocence shattered by the life-threatening diagnosis of a young classmate.  

Thinking that my tears were under control and hoping my voice would not betray the intensity of my emotions, I immediately picked up the phone to let Bob know how proud of him I was. When I asked him why he had done this, his simple response re-primed my emotional font: “I just wanted to, Grampsy.”

Knowing Bob heard my whimpering, I asked him if he knew why I was crying. He did, and I was able to acknowledge that it’s okay for guys to cry when they feel strong emotion.

Bob’s and Charlie’s shearing was just one example of the incredible, continuing individual and community support for Gil’s family. The large and small gestures have combined to form a web of care and caring that is heart and soul warming. Here are just a few examples:

  • The local barber provided discounts for others who wanted to shave their heads -- a bunch of other classmates took him up on his offer.

  • The school principal granted permission for all 5th graders to wear baseball caps for the remainder of the school year.

  • A pair of mothers organized volunteers to provide meals that were delivered to Gil’s family for six months.

  • Gil, an active Little Leaguer, was invited to throw out the first pitch at the local high school baseball game on opening day.

  • The local major league baseball team, the Washington Nationals, invited Gil and other children to take the field during “Heroes Against Childhood Cancer” night and they got to meet the manager and receive a signed baseball.

  • At Gil’s promotion ceremony from 5th grade to middle school, he was presented with a blanket signed by all his classmates and teachers.

  • A 10-year-old girl, who did not know Gil but had heard his story, decided to try to win an iPad for him by participating in a contest at her local gym. When she fell one point shy of winning, and the gym owner found out why she was competing, he bought a second iPad and gave it to her so she could give it to Gil.

  • Neighbors spontaneously invited Gil’s siblings for playdates.

  • Gil’s dad’s employer granted flex hours and provided the family with a bi-weekly cleaning service.

  • Gil’s county Little League and travel team raised funds to send the entire family to Disneyworld, Universal Studios, and Sea World for a week.


During a time of seemingly relentless natural and manmade disasters, often geographically distant and almost beyond our capacity to imagine, we often feel powerless to take direct measures that make a measurable difference. The far away anonymity often makes such efforts seem inconsequential. We feel that one person can’t do much for the many.


But Gil’s illness has shown that many, through their individual actions, can do so very much for the one. And that’s a very beautiful picture.


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The names of the children have been changed in order to respect the privacy of all the families.

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