Saturday, November 19, 2011

Yep, still hurts: Feb 22, 2004

I wrote this column in short, breathless bursts over the course of several agonizing months. Every time I worked on it, I would disintegrate into tears and had to stop. I knew I needed to finish it, though, and I'm glad I finally did.

It's probably one of the best things I've ever written. But I still hate reading it.

Hair and hope and hard, hard days to handle

    I am walking through my bedroom when I spot a pile of dark fur on top of a dresser. I clap sharply at it, thinking my cat will slink guiltily off the furniture. Then I realize I am clapping at my mother’s hair.

    When she comes to visit, my mom always takes off her hair and drops it wherever she happens to be standing. Sometimes it ends up on the bed or a dresser. Occasionally it lies, disconcertingly, on the dining room table.

    "I hate that wig," she gripes. "I’d rather go around bald, but people stare."

    "Let them stare," I suggest.

    False bravado. I would never do it.

    She shakes her head, shrugs slightly at the thought of going out uncovered. It’s not her style to make anyone uncomfortable, even if it means she has to wear the wig.

    It’s a good wig, really. Lightweight, close to the color of the hair she doesn’t have anymore, same hairstyle as the one she used to have. It was an expensive wig.

    But she doesn’t like it. I don’t, either, mostly because she doesn’t. And because I feel a little stupid when I find myself snapping at it to get down off that table.

    I wander into the living room to tell my mom I just scolded her hair again. She is lying on the couch under a red cotton blanket.

    My 3-year-old son is curled up behind her legs, resting his head on her hip.

    "I just clapped at your hair," I tell her. "I’m trying to train it to stay off the furniture."

    She smiles, manages a chuckle, strokes my son’s curly hair. She is bald as an egg. She looks tired. She is tired. We’re all tired. We’re so worried.

    My mother is coming up on the end of a six-month series of chemotherapy treatments. Six months of chemotherapy is a lot of poison. A lot of time spent in a pale room, watching corrosive chemicals drip drip drip into your veins. The nurses have to wear protective clothing when they handle the stuff. It eats skin. It also, we hope, eats cancer.

    When my mother’s hair started to fall out this past August, she came over so I could cut what was left of it. She sat in my kitchen on a chair I dragged in from the dining room. I draped a towel around her neck and touched the long, sparse remains of her dark hair.

    "We’re playing barber shop," I told my son, who had sidled up to watch. "You want a haircut, too?"     

    He shook his head. I cut my mom’s hair with kitchen scissors, cropping it close to her scalp. I don’t know anything about cutting hair.

    "It will all be gone soon, anyway," she said.

    It was. She started wearing hats, then bought the wig to wear to work. She’s a teacher. She still goes to school twice a week and teaches. She wears her hair and her work clothes and sometimes a surgical mask to protect her from germs that could attack her suppressed immune system and kill her.

    When she comes by my house after class she’s still wearing the hair and the clothes. I don’t hate the wig then. I like it. She almost looks like herself. I look at her, and I believe she will beat this.

    She will win. She will see my son grow up. She will be my best friend until we’re both old ladies.

    Please, God.

    While the chemotherapy burned away my mother’s hair, my own hair grew all summer and into the fall, down to the middle of my back. It looked awful. I’m too old for that look. I’m too short, and my hair is too thick and coarse. I really looked dreadful.

    But I had a plan.

    In October I went to see Juanita. She measured my hair and sectioned it off into four ponytails.

She stood behind me, sharp scissors poised.

    "Here we go," she said. She cut my hair off a few inches from the scalp. Four long, dense ponytails piled up in my lap. Juanita looked at me in the mirror.

    "How’s your mom?" she asked gently.

    I can talk about this now without crying. It’s been more than six months since her diagnosis. I can talk about it, and I only feel the sting of tears behinds my eyelids, just taste a little salt in the back of my throat. I am not doubled over, not weeping, gasping. I can talk.

    I can. Just give me a minute.

    "She’s having chemo. Then she’ll have surgery. Then she’ll have radiation. Then we’ll see. It’s a pretty rare cancer. It’s aggressive."

    Juanita nodded, put my ponytails into a plastic bag, handed me my hair. I took the bag to the post office and mailed it to Locks of Love. They make wigs for children who have cancer.

    I know a haircut is a small gesture, but it’s all I’ve got. I hope my hair makes this fight a little easier for someone. Maybe it will help them remember what life was like before the diagnosis, the chemotherapy, the constant worry, the fear, the sadness. Maybe it will help them picture a future that includes them.

    Maybe, somewhere, someone will yell at my hair to get down off that table.

Happy ending. Three years after this column first ran, with my
mommy, and her mommy, and my babies.

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