With all the pain and grief he’s been through in recent weeks, Brekan Kohlitz found himself in a most unlikely and oddly comforting position the other evening: standing on a porch in the Fan District, giving one of his best (and shaggiest) friends a haircut and a shave.
Kohlitz, who lost his wife, Ashleigh, 34, on May 13, found the support from all of the recent gatherings of family and friends and, yes, even the barbering, “uplifting in ways that were very unexpected.”
“People say it, and I’m trying to do it: There’s so much to be grateful for,” Kohlitz said Thursday. “The friendships I have ... are just unbelievable.”
Ashleigh Kohlitz died after a seven-year battle with brain cancer, which was diagnosed only weeks before they were married in 2014. Instead of a honeymoon, Ashleigh underwent surgery and treatment at the University of Virginia’s Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center.
I wrote about Ashleigh and Brekan three years later as Ashleigh, during a period of stable health and clean scans, was about to give birth to their son, Caden, whom they described as “a miracle.”
The Henrico County couple was very public about Ashleigh’s situation, chronicling her journey in a blog, and very upbeat. The former collegiate athletes — Ashleigh played soccer at the University of Richmond, Brekan played lacrosse at the University of Michigan — trusted in the power of hope, prayer and positive thought. Family members wore shirts imprinted with “#KickAsh” on the front.
Ashleigh and Brekan met as graduate business students at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter and both worked at Capital One.
The run of clean medical reports for Ashleigh ended in September 2019.
“We kind of got blindsided,” Brekan said. “Since then, it’s been a crazy spiral of dealing with Round 2.”
Even toward the end, when Ashleigh’s health had deteriorated and she had trouble getting around and even turning her head, she responded to a doctor’s question of how she was with, “I’m doing pretty good!”
Said Brekan, “I’m still aspiring to be as strong as her.”
Now, about that barbering session ...
A pair of Brekan’s college roommates and lacrosse teammates at Michigan, Mark Hammitt and Mike Shearman, got together.
“We’ve got to do something,” Shearman recalled Hammitt saying to him. “We’ve got to help Brekan.”
They set up GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for a college fund for Caden, who turns 4 in June. Hammitt focused his GoFundMe on reaching out to the Michigan lacrosse family (and has raised more than $30,000). Shearman, an investment professional at Redding Ridge Asset Management, went in a slightly different direction.
He made a promise to donors to cut his long pandemic hair and to shave his beard. “I have ‘always’ had a beard, but if shaving may help ease Brekan’s burden, let’s do it,” Shearman wrote in his pitch.
Apparently, this appeal struck a chord among those who wanted to help the Kohlitz family (and also see what Shearman looked like beneath all that). Shearman started off with a goal of $25,000 last week. Donations blew past that in a day or so. Then he pushed the goal to $50,000. Easily eclipsed. By Wednesday, the total had exceeded $80,000, and Shearman sat on the porch of a friend’s house on Grace Street for his shearing by Brekan, who did most of the cutting and shaving, with a little help from others, including Caden.
Let’s say upfront there wasn’t a lot of blood. Shearman came through fine and looks good.
“Such a cool gesture. To literally change your appearance. That’s really something,” Brekan said. “I told him, ‘You look more handsome than I remembered.’”
As for remembering, Shearman recalled the last time his face was clean-shaven:
For Brekan and Ashleigh’s wedding in 2014.
“I have a beard,” Shearman said earlier Wednesday, when he still did, “and it’s a funny story, but this is really Ashleigh’s story and Brekan’s story and how it really moved people.”
Shearman added, “How did I get blessed with such good people in my life?”
Brekan is saying the same thing.
He is an only child, and he couldn’t help but wonder at times if he might be having to go it alone. He now knows he needn’t have worried. He’s been surrounded by love and support in the past couple of weeks, including from many of his Michigan lacrosse teammates who came in from all over the country.
“When people show up, especially at dark times, it brings a whole other element of light,” he said. “I think I’ll always struggle to express the gratitude I have, but it really is breathtaking.”
PHOTOS: Shearman is shorn to support friend after devastating loss
Michael Shearman, of New York, is "sheared" by his lacrosse teammate and roommate from college Brekan Kohlitz and his son Caden Kohlitz in Richmond, Va. Shearman promised to lose his beard and long hair after enough money was raised during a GoFundMe for Caden's college fund. Kohlitz ‘s wife Ashleigh Kohlitz died last week after a seven-year battle with brain cancer.