Written: January 2016
The day I got my hair, my head was covered.
At that moment in time, I would take my shirt off for anyone who asked me to, but my head would remain covered. On this day, I took a friend and we drove down Highway 4 to pick me out some hair. In the car, as the sun shone in on the passenger side, I explained that no one had seen me bald. I didn’t even want to see it myself. The one piece of my body that was still private.
I had birthed three girls, so I knew the routine of taking off my pants for exams and deliveries. For the last two months, I had begun taking my shirt off for doctors and nurses and techs. One doctor would not even close the exam room before she had me strip down in front of her. No matter who was in the room: friend, family or acquaintance. Bare breasts were routine.
My head was my own. My final stand.
Yet on this trip, I knew I would have to release control. My hat must come off in order for a wig to be put on. My friend would know my secret. She would witness my last moment of privacy. I told her this, as I quietly cried.
We walked into a room of kind older women whose purpose for three hours a week was to outfit bald women, like myself, with hair. I was by far the youngest woman in the room and my assistant had a hard time finding hair for my generation.
But we did it. It was not my natural color or length but it worked. I put it on and it worked. It felt right and I felt good.
We walked out of the room and I headed to the bathroom. Wearing my new hair for the first time. I checked myself out in the mirror, self-conscious, but smiling. It was a moment. I was empowered. The gift of normalcy, of fitting in.
A woman entered the bathroom. She probably caught me checking myself out. In my hand held a bag with a head for the wig to rest on. We were only five feet from the room that hands out such gifts to women.
She said, “Your hair looks very nice.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“What made you lose your hair?”
“Breast cancer,” I replied.
“My hair won’t grow very long either. This is as long as it will get. It has been this way for almost a year now.”
I nodded and smiled. Being visibly sick is a blessing and a curse. People see you. See you differently. If they have a story that in any way aligns with yours, you will hear about it. Some stories are nice, comforting. You walk away feeling bonded. Many people have walked this road. Each has a story. Theirs can encourage you. Surely I can be stronger than some of them! If they can get through it than I can too.
Some stories are terrible. Not at all what you want to hear. Those stories seem to gush from strangers. It is hard to hear the story from the other side. The stranger may be saying, “Someone I loved, who was very young is gone. I had planned to spend many beautiful vacations with and share many bottles of wine watching the sunset with her. And as I stand here and see you, I am reminded of my love for her and I want to give you a bottle of wine in her honor.” But what I hear is, “A young mom with kids like yours, didn’t catch her cancer early either. She was your age and died leaving young children who may not even remember their mother at all. She never watched the sunset with them or me because we were too busy. You REALLY need to drink a lot of wine to get through this, but, oh yeah, you aren’t allowed too.”
This woman’s story wasn’t about a loved one or cancer. It was about a health problem that kept her hair from growing. That was our common point.
So as I stood in the bathroom, still in front of the mirror, with a styrofoam head in my hand, she started talking to me about the empowerment of women.
“There is nothing for you to be embarrassed about. You are a strong woman with cancer. Your head is bald but you can be proud of who you are, and where you are in this moment. Life is about being honest with yourself and others. You can be boldly, baldly, beautiful. So, don’t hide behind your wig.”
“Thanks,” I said, and I exited the bathroom, smiled at my friend and headed off to lunch.
At lunch, my hair felt strange brushing up against my face and neck. It had only been a couple weeks since I had hair but it already felt foreign. I felt confident at lunch in the nicest neighborhood and walking past all the high-end stores. We had such a good time we went out for dessert after lunch. The wig didn’t itch or hurt. I never really thought about any discomfort. I would check myself out in every window reflection and think how nice it is to have permanent highlights and bangs that will never need to be trimmed.
That bathroom chat, though, stole some of my joy that day. There was no way I could have walked past shops and eaten lunch on the town, bald headed. It wasn’t going to happen. Men go bald gradually, and if you go bald, that is how it should be. Instant baldness is not acceptable to the psyche.
Months later, I do acknowledge there is some truth in the bathroom chat. Hair is a state of mind.
When I am happiest, I wear my hair. I put on my lipstick and my hair piece. I stand tall. I go out for coffee. I call my mom. The hair doesn’t make me feel that way. I simply want to look in the mirror and see a reflection of my heart.
When I am frustrated, and tired of feeling tired, I have absolutely no desire for hair. Nothing will make me more infuriated than the suggestion of wearing hair. I don’t feel normal. I don’t feel healthy. I don’t want to be associated with those who walk whole and well. My body is broken and weak. I wake up and it is a fight to walk downstairs and a workout to walk up the stairs. I feel bald. I have been stripped of all that was previously taken for granted. I look at the calendar and see an endless round of treatments. I cannot grocery shop or even be left alone with my own children. Bald resonates with my heart. I am no longer who I was. I am bald. I am doing this, but don’t expect me to do life in the same way I did before right now. See my head, all of me has been stripped away, I don’t want to cover it up. I want to be real, for you to look at me and know how I feel. I am stripped bare, inside and out. There is no frivolity of the body or soul that remains. Bald is who I am.