I thought it would be easier, this shedding of the hair. I didn’t want to drag it out, losing it hair by hair, feeling more and more pathetic. So I determined to have it all taken off at once, when the time was right. A day after my second chemo infusion, my hair started to come out rapidly, leaving a golf ball-sized wad of my already-short hair in the shower. Two days later, when the hunk was the size of a tennis ball and the occasional hair would gently waft past my eyes as I went about my day, I felt it was time. I called my hairdresser of 22 years. It was Saturday and her day off, but she told me to come over to her home salon.
Who says you can’t go home again, at least to get your head shaved? Several years ago, my hairdresser and her husband bought the same house in Enfield that Dan and I had lived in for eight years. We drove over and my longtime, trusted hairdresser gently buzzed away all the vestiges of her handiwork. She wouldn’t take a dime. I hugged her, thanked her for the worst haircut she’d ever given me and said I’d be back next year.
And then, almost immediately, my bravado started to crack. For the next few days, every time I looked in a mirror I was shocked anew. It was a stranger looking back at me, a stranger who had foolishly cut off all her hair and turned herself into a freak. I couldn’t imagine my daughters and husband would want to be seen with me. I could not understand why I had been in such a hurry to do this.
I didn’t completely hide. I took my morning walks in the neighborhood; I took my kids shopping, to the library and out to eat. They, to my amazement, didn’t seem fazed at all. I was so relieved; at least they weren’t traumatized or embarrassed by me.
The problem, it seemed, was me. I didn’t feel like myself, the girl who likes to look okay but has no illusions about looking great. I had completely lost my confidence in my own appearance.
Several mornings after the shaving, I woke up and felt again the bristles raking against my pillow. I started to cry. I knew I had to do something to change the way I was feeling. After I pulled myself together, I tied on a bandanna and went out for my walk.
As I passed by my neighbors’ homes that morning, I thought about a necklace I started wearing shortly after my diagnosis. It’s a simple silver chain with some items from my family on it. I call them my amulets: a turquoise ring my mother wore as a baby, a small skeleton key from my father’s family, a silver earring that my mother-in-law gave me. These charms rest near my heart, grazing my lumpectomy scar. As I walk, they jingle softly and remind me of the strength with which these beloved people led their lives.
My mother-in-law was a tiny woman, but her fierceness and love were enormous. She fought through more than her share of losses in her life, and I try to carry some of her toughness and determination with me.
From my father, I draw the shining example of a quiet and dedicated man who fought leukemia for almost ten years with dignity and grace. He faced his challenges with humor and acceptance, and he was positive yet always realistic about the course of his illness. He said leukemia was something he would die with, not from—although, in the end, he outlasted all the available treatments and it was the cancer that finally took him.
But I was not sure what I carried from my mother into this battle. She was pleasant, religious, clear-sighted and optimistic. When she found a worthy cause, she threw herself deeply into it: volunteering at church and in the community, tutoring, helping to start the local soup kitchen, collecting winter clothing for local children, educating and lobbying about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. She was a hard person to emulate, and impossible, in many ways, to measure up to.
As I walked that morning, I started to think about another facet of my mother: in addition to her estimable qualities, she was also a terrible dresser. My sister recently dubbed her the “Queen of Loud-Print Polyester”—and in the mid-1970s it took serious effort to earn that title. Shopping at second-hand stores long before that was trendy, she was so pleased with her gaudy bargains. In my adolescence, as I grew more concerned with how I looked, it seemed she cared less and less. I spent my teenage years cringing in front of my friends, embarrassed by her garish prints and clashing colors.
She hadn’t always dressed like that. In photos of her as a girl and young woman, she looked neat and put-together. Her own mother always dressed stylishly and was, I’ve been told, quite concerned with her appearance. Perhaps that’s why my mother stopped caring: she needed to be different from her mother. Or maybe, as she got older, it was as simple as this: the thrust of her life—her family and her causes—dwarfed any concern with appearances. Her interior had become more important than her exterior.
All I knew was that for the teenaged me, her exterior was something to be ashamed of. I swore I’d never dress like that. I’d never embarrass my children that way.
Yet here I was, decades later, sporting a bald head. Here I was, with two fashion-conscious daughters, who amazingly didn’t seem to care. Here I was, feeling all the eyes upon me when maybe there weren’t any at all, or just two. The eyes judging me were, apparently, my own and no others.
It almost stopped me short: what I needed was to stop caring about my own exterior. What I needed was more of that part of my mother that had so mortified me.
And right there, at that moment on the sidewalk, it got a little easier. I started to feel that this long-derided aspect of my mother could be a source not of shame, but of strength. It was an inheritance I never wanted or expected. But perhaps it was the truest legacy: the gift I never dreamed I would need, the one I spurned, the one that at long last fell into my searching hands and fit my grip perfectly.