Sunday, November 27, 2011

Making plans: Nov. 14, 2004

When someone you love is really sick, it's hard to look ahead. You spend most of your time getting through days, even hours, just hoping for the best and waiting for something to change. You talk vaguely about making the kinds of plans that underpin people's everyday lives, but you don't really make them. The details are what's know in the world of Outlook calendars as 'to be determined.'

Back when I wrote about the year my mother spent fighting cancer, all I wanted in the world was to be able to write this column -- a column where we had the optimism to look forward, a column about an ordinary day and the plan for the days ahead.

Life is always changing, but we’re just glad to be‘hair’
    My mother is sort of poking at her hair, trying to figure out how to get it to lie down even a little bit.

    "I don’t know whose hair this is," she grumbles, tugging at it. "I don’t know what to do with this hair."

    I tell her I think it’s cute. She does not think it’s cute.

    "It’s so curly," she moans. "It’s so curly."

    It really is curly. My mother has dark ringlets framing her face, corkscrew curls at the nape of her neck. She has bona fide curly hair for the first time in her life.

    I tell her I think it’s cute. I also tell her what we both know but tend not to say.

    "I’m just glad you have hair to hate," I say. "I hope it’s the worst problem you ever have for the rest of your life."

    She shrugs. I’ve derailed her plan to spend the afternoon hating her hair. Not fair of me, I know. But it’s true. I do think her hair is cute, and I’m so glad she’s still here with me that I sometimes can’t breathe.

    All kinds of strange things happen to hair that has been burned away by chemotherapy. Sometimes it grows back dark when it had been light, or curly when it had been straight or gray when it had been brown. Sometimes it doesn’t grow back at all.     

    If you look at the little picture of me that runs with this column, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what my mother’s hair looked like before her cancer treatment. It was dark, wavy, coarse. We tend toward frizz, but neither of us has ever had anything that could be described as a curl. And she was going slowly gray. Nothing dramatic. Just a few shots of it through the dark waves.

    Then cancer. And chemo. Six months of chemo, and her hair was all gone in just a few weeks in. My son was 3 years old when my mother started treatment, and he didn’t notice when his Momo’s hair fell out. It was an absolutely gorgeous phenomenon, how he just didn’t see any difference in her at all.

    She once put her wig on while he watched. He looked perplexed. "Momo," he scolded her. "Take off that hat."

    He doesn’t notice now that her hair is curly, either. He’s glad she has the energy to get on the floor and play with him again, but the rest of it is way below his 4-year-old radar.

    A few weeks ago I spotted a strand of gray sticking out of my own dark hair.

    It’s not the first gray hair I’ve seen on my head, but this one is right in the middle of the front. It tends to stand straight up. It is really an exceptionally obnoxious gray hair. The class clown of gray hairs. The troublemaker.

    I usually pull them out, which I know is dumb, but I do it anyway.

    This time, though, I didn’t. I thought about my mom’s short new ringlets, and I decided to leave this gray hair alone. I thought about the bitter night in January, right after my mother’s surgery, when I slept next to her hospital bed on a pull-out vinyl loveseat. I spent most of that night listening to her breathe, watching her fitful, pained sleep.     

    I thought about my little boy, about the nights I have spent counting his breaths, watching him move as if he’s swimming through his dreams. I thought about the nights my mother spent doing the same for me when I was small.

    My mother’s new hair is curly, mine is going slowly gray, my son is getting tall, and his baby brother will be here in just a couple of months.

    So I’m leaving my troublemaking gray hair alone, mostly to acknowledge that there is nothing I can do to stop any of the changes that make this life both sweet and terrifying.

    And because I don’t know that I’d stop them if I could.

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