I actually have some. Hair, that is. On my head it’s grown back very nicely, thank you. OK, it’s mostly silver. But we’re going with platinum on that. I was actually a bit bummed when I needed to start shaving my legs again, which just goes to show you how quickly gratitude can fade. For a woman in our culture, hair has great meaning, some of it hidden.
For starters, it can signify health and femininity, You know it’s true: A woman with long, glossy hair gets looks, no matter her other assets. Some men won’t consider dating a girl with short hair. It’s considered butch, I guess. Losing my hair to chemo was somewhat of a sacrifice, but the choice was truly no choice at all. Moderately aggressive breast cancer with a higher than I would like risk of recurrence made chemo a stark reality within weeks of my surgery. In fact, when I was first diagnosed (I always wondered how I would react if a doctor told me I had cancer), one of the first things I expressed aloud was the fear of losing my swirly, curly auburn hair. Lose it I did. For good.
It started with a series of hair cuts. “I meant to do that!”, these declared to the world. A chin-length bob led to compliments from co-workers. They ranged from, “You look ten years younger!” to “You’re a handsome woman,” the last from a gentleman on staff. I’ve never really been sure what to make of that one, actually. Was he afraid of sexual harassment charges if he said anything stronger than that? We’ll never know.
The bob only lasted 3-4 weeks. After the first chemo treatment, the “heading towards baldness” clock began to tick in earnest. A kind woman at the Your Shoes Support hotline recommended I get it cut really short. Fast. After being warned by her tale of hugging a friend and leaving a trail of hair clumps on their clothes, I took action. Down to the local Great Clips I went. Sitting in the chair for what would be my last real haircut for nearly a year, I asked her to cut it as short as possible, using only scissors. (The clippers might damage my scalp, which was already acutely painful and exquisitely sensitive; a sure sign hair loss was imminent within days.) Even laying my head on my pillow or being under a ceiling fan caused a wince and “ouch!”
Understand, I was not going for any “hairstyle” at all. “I don’t care what it looks like”, I distinctly remember telling her. I just wanted most of it gone, so when the fallout really began, it might not be so traumatic. I had even brought a cap with me to that haircut. To start getting used to hats and scarves covering my vulnerable noggin. But I left with my head held high, and uncovered. Her mother had gone through breast cancer. She understood. She gave me a really cute little pixie cut, which I did not expect, at all. It felt like a gift. A bit of history: My first pixie cut happened in second grade. My mother found it adorable and had been trying to get me back to that style ever since. Really. Now, here it was, and while it pained me to admit this, she was right. It did look really good with my delicate features. For about a week.
A big part of having cancer is losing any illusion that you have control over your life. Having been a bit of a health nut, I didn’t even have a primary care physician. Never had the flu, never broke a bone, survived after being born premature and weighing only 2 lbs., 10 oz. Looong before there was such a thing as neo-natal ICU. These were my verbal talismans of good health. Previously, I had the luxury of choosing my food and my exercise and so much in my life. Now I couldn’t even choose a hairstyle. Or a haircolor. Except for my wig. Which is NOT the same. It is, I grant you, a lovely wig, being very similar to my hair, in that previous life. It fooled people who had never met me. But a wig feels like a hot, tight, fuzzy, itchy cap. I once ripped it off in the car while driving to work one morning, at 60 miles an hour. Faced with this new torture, I no longer cared about maintaining my privacy and who knew I was undergoing cancer treatment. Just get the dang thing off me, quick!
Right on schedule, my hair did begin to fall out in clumps. I took to only combing it on the balcony, where I could toss the wads of hair overboard and watch then waft away. At first, I wondered what the neighbors in my condo thought about seeing that hair scattered around the parking lot. Then I was long past caring what others thought about my hair. A little light cap at night kept the loose hair corralled until morning, so it did not get all over my bed. You know how you can get itchy from the loose hair after a haircut? Try having that 24/7.
At school, my students and colleagues mostly knew what was up with the multitude of hats and scarves. One man who was a regular sub thought I was just making colorful fashion statements. For a while. Many of my students knew someone who had gone through cancer and they were so sympathetic. One of my favorite memories is of Michael. At our school, students have a dress code and are not supposed to wear head coverings of any kind. But Michael always wore a beanie. He would take it off when requested, but it would end up back on. He was such a calming influence on the class, and asked such interesting questions, out of a genuine sense of curiosity, that my co-teacher and I just let it go. One day he called me to his desk. As I leaned over, he smiled and told me, “Hey, miss, I think my beanie would look good on you!” What an offering that was. I did allow as how that acid green was a good color for me. In fact, I had bought a t-shirt to make a turban with, which was just that color!
Being essentially bald held other surprises in store for me. Hair wasn’t there to keep me warm. Air conditioning made me even colder than usual. And the hair was gone everywhere on my body. Suffice it to say, my hair no longer said that I was past puberty. Although I will admit, it was nice to go swimming without worrying about shaving my legs. Or anywhere else, for that matter. As a woman, the morning time-consuming ritual of “hair and makeup” was now simply a scarf or hat and a little makeup to avoid looking TOO scary and washed out. There were no eyelashes to put mascara on, anyway.
But, oddly enough, the lack of hair came to signify intimacy. At home, I kept a little scarf nearby so that if I stepped out or someone came to the door, I could quickly slide it on. Only those who knew me and loved me got to see me without any coverings. Without my eyebrows drawn on. There was such a sense of vulnerability to that.
My chemo ended in mid-summer, so when school started, I had to make a decision. To wig or not to wig? My hair was a fraction of an inch long but not “normal looking”. Not by a long shot. However, I was sick of scarves and caps. I felt that they screamed, “Here comes the sick lady.” With a new crop of students, I didn’t want to go though the story of my diagnosis, etc. I was moving forward into the rest of my life. And I had a new, more comfy wig made of human hair, which was generously provided by the American Cancer Society. It looked pretty much like me.
So, I started the school year in that wig. Got my ID badge photo taken with it on. That lasted about one week. August in South Texas is really not the best time for itchy, hot wigs. Somehow, I had forgotten that part. After considering my options again, I took the plunge and just showed up to school, as me. The new me, with very short, white hair. A few of the students thought I had gotten a hair cut, bless their hearts. I ‘fessed up to the kids that the other had been a wig. And moved on. But in certain situations I still wore a hat. Maybe a broad-brimmed sun hat to the store, but I was covered, nonetheless.
Going through chemo is exhausting and I had spent a good part of my summer alone; just taking care of me, day by day. With a bit of energy returning, I longed for some conversation and being more a part of the world. That makes my decision to go for a coffee date in early September seem not so weird. After all, I was now undergoing nearly seven weeks of daily radiation treatments. But I still wanted to get out of the house and do something mundane. Something that had nothing to do with disease or treatment. Something which let me feel like a normal woman.
Walking into Starbucks, my date was already there. Now, I had no expectations of anything romantic, so I wore a wig, out of politeness, but not a mask. No games, as they say. Six hours later, after coffee and tea and dinner, we finally parted. He knew my diagnosis and had even been granted a peek under my wig. A massive e-mail conversation began in earnest. A few weeks later, we met at the same Starbucks, to head to another town for dinner and jamming to a local band. I had warned him before hand, “It’s too hot. I’m not wearing my wig”. His immediate response was, “I like you, not your hair”. I don’t know about you, but that beats “You complete me” for a romantic response to a vulnerable woman. So he could recognize me, I blithely tossed out, “Think Annie Lennox”. When he drove up, I was outside waiting in a chair. As he stepped out of his truck, we both burst out laughing and moved into a hug, the most natural thing in the world. We were engaged three months later.
The rose at the top of this was taken in the Tyler Rose Gardens in late November. To me, it is a gorgeous posy, even though it is starting to wilt, just a bit, on one edge. It may be somewhat past the traditional “prime” but still has so much color and beauty to offer the world. It is still unfurling, still in the process of blooming and revealing its fullness.
Today I have hair and a new husband; a new life. My silvery salt and pepper pixie cut still works for me. Not much styling happens with it. Truly, it’s only hair and I’m just grateful I have some. My wigs are on a shelf up in the closet. Next to those scarves and caps. Health-wise, I have no guarantees of what the future holds for me. Honestly, I gave up trying to figure that out. I’m just here to savor every day of the ride, as long as it lasts.