This post is dedicated to my hair. I realize that this might seem indulgent, and that’s because it is. However, like many, many things in cancer (the disease, not the astrological sign, lest my super sweet gif below confuse you), things that might seem like yours, like hair, for example, begin to mean something to others.
The first time I had cancer, I did not understand this. I couldn’t really see beyond my own bald head, or the act of losing my hair. As it happened, I began to lose it when I was hospitalized for an infection, and my mom ended up shaving my head there. It was a combination of sad and liberating. It was meaningful that my mom shaved my head. I lost my hair about three weeks into my chemo treatment, so right around the time of my second treatment.
There are certain visuals of cancer that mark you as “a cancer patient”, and baldness, and the accompanying scarves, hats, and wigs, is a clear one. Baldness in women can signal a lot of things: illness, age, and very rarely, just badassery (i.e. Ani Difranco circa the mid-nineties). Personally, I try to turn the first two into the third; however, regardless of how hard I work to cultivate that confidence within myself, there are other opinions which matter.
My daughter, Vivian, is most attentive to my hair loss this time. Like last time, we attempted to make my hair loss a family affair, this time by letting the kids shave my head (with Matty’s supervision and help, of course…I wanted to keep my ears.) I bought clippers so we could all do it at home, and I also bought temporary hair dye so the kids could do something weird to their hair. Last time I had cancer, we had the idea that we would all shave our heads together, and somehow make this not weird. Listen, I have a new lesson I’ve learned, and I feel like sharing: there is no way to make shaving your head before you lose your hair to cancer completely normal and not scary for your children. This makes me feel helpless as a mother. This helplessness, despite all of my planning and efforts, is what I intentionally forgot, or blocked, from my first cancer experience. I am re-learning that even though I try, and I try, and I try to mitigate the sadness, fear, and pain for them, in the end, they still have to feel sadness, fear, and pain. I know that Brene Brown says that these vulnerable feelings are part of an essential process of building resilience and empathy for others, but as a mother, it is so, so hard to watch your own illness be a source of this emotional development in your small children.
Henry has been through this before- the hair thing doesn’t scare him nearly as much as it did the first time. He knows my hair will come and go. This time, his fear, anger, sadness, and worry rest more with the illness itself. He wonders whether he will hurt me, just by being near. The other night as we were cuddling up after stories, I said, “Come on in here, closer.”
He responded, “Is it ok if I put my head on your breast? I don’t want to hurt you.”
I replied, “It’s ok. I’ll keep you posted.”
And, we cuddled.
But, Vivian. She’s four, and discovering her body. I am the female in the house. She will never remember a time when a feminized body does not include scars, and implants, shaved heads, and hormones (though I doubt she’s aware of the hormones, other than that sometimes Mommy is “not patient”). On the upside, my children are developing an early understanding of the concept of gender as social and internal, rather than tied to the mechanics of one’s body. As in, they know I’m a woman, or a “goyrle”, as Vivian pronounces it, and they also know, or are coming to know that the physical markers of womanhood are not always part of my body. They’ve seen me with breasts, without them, and again with implants. They’ve seen me with and without hair. They’ve watched me recover from a hysterectomy, and they know I can’t have any more kids. So, since the hysterectomy and mastectomy are permanent, the hair has become an even bigger deal for Vivian.
As such, about a week after we gave me a buzz cut, and I spray-dyed my kids’ hair, while I was at my folks’ house recovering from my first treatment, the kids wanted new hair cuts of their own. Matty gave Henry some kind of mod mushroom cut/pompadour. It looks great. He looks like Macauley Culkin circa Home Alone. And then Viv, ever so quietly, later slipped into the bathroom on her own with a pair of her child-proof scissors, cut her hair, and presented her locks to Matty in a leftover gift box. I know she’s four, and this is something normal four-year-olds do, but the symbolism of her watching me strip myself of my hair, my last malleable marker of femininity, doing the same, and then literally making a present of her hair to the man in her life, just rocked me somehow.
I found out via pictures, and I felt so sad. I had wanted to provide a safe, semi-permanent way for my kids to participate in my transition back to cancer patient. As their mother, I wanted to control that. However, one of Vivian’s apparent purposes in life is to remind me that I don’t get to decide how other people react or process the things that happen to me. I don’t know why it is so hard for me to learn this lesson again and again. I want to protect them, and I can a little, but I must keep learning that my impulses towards protecting my loved ones must never cross over into denying them the opportunity to experience the range of emotions, even the painful ones, that help them make sense of what is happening to their lives. My job is to just be there as they do it. Ugh! Parenting is sometimes excruciating.
So, anyhow, my hair, like everyone’s, I’m sure, could be a lifetime montage of freeness, of bad hair cuts given by stylists who couldn’t cut thick, curly, Mexican hair, like I used to have before giving birth and going through menopause, of the moment I discovered how to style my hair curly on my own in late high school, or when I went short after Vivian was born and I had no more time to devote to it. But, somewhere along the way, the way I look became not only a symbol of my identity as a female, but also a mirror for my children, who are learning from me what it means to be a woman. Their knowledge of the female will always now include the particular ways in which females can become ill, and also, what and how they can recover, and hopefully, thrive.
By way of an update, I’ve just finished my second treatment. I feel alright, all things considered. I got a port installed yesterday in my chest, which will make my treatments go much more quickly! I look forward to shorter days at the hospital, and I also hope it doesn’t get infected.
I leave you with this, as a reminder that we must celebrate our hair.