The last time I had short hair, I was five years old and Freddie King had turned me into a boy. We’d been playing on the swing set in the backyard that connected our two properties. It was October and my zip-up corduroy jacket was the russet-red of the oak trees towering overhead.
Our sneakered feet pounded on earth packed hard to a dark shine as we took a running start before taking off, legs out-thrust, toes to the sky. As we flew, Freddie said, “Do you want to be a boy?’
Freddie was only a year older than me, a round little guy with sandy hair and a cowlick, so I’m not sure why I thought he could accomplish something so significant. But maybe at five, I didn’t think it was such a big deal, for I said, “Sure,” without giving it too much thought. I didn’t even ask how he'd do it.
We slowed our swings, heels dragging in the dirt to stop us, then jumped off and marched to his house. I followed him into the kitchen and waited while he dug through a drawer, shoving aside a box of thumbtacks, a bottle of Elmer’s glue, some loose rubber bands, a ruler and a screwdriver. Finally he located a pair of scissors.
Ah. Scissors. What was to be cut? Why wasn’t I alarmed?
For I’d not realized that the key to gender alteration was simply a haircut. So easy.
Freddie attacked my chin-length pageboy, his gaze intent, tongue caught between his teeth. When he was done, he stood back, a smile of satisfaction creasing his cheeks. When I checked my image in the mirror over the bathroom sink, I had to admit, he’d done a good job. I did look like a boy. Sort of waifish and ragged, with a trace of pink scalp showing here, an overlong wisp of hair left there.
When I scampered home and banged open the back door with the proud announcement, “Look, Mom! I’m a boy,” my mother was horrified. She’d been content with a daughter after all. A desperate trip to the barber helped only a little: the only thing that really worked was a total cover-up with a red cowgirl hat. Have to say, in old pictures of that year, I look pretty cocky in that hat.
My nephew Christopher, with his worn jeans, leather vests and boots can carry off a cowboy hat. I’m not sure that I can anymore. So I’ve purchased a wig and two turbans, and my sister Rita’s friend has supplied me with a pile of scarves from her days of chemo-caused baldness. I’m as ready as I can be for the day when a lock of hair twisted idly around my finger comes loose in my hand.
I’ve received a lot of advice about how to handle the hair loss from those around me: “My friend just shaved her head when it started to go. She wanted to show those follicles she was still boss.” Another suggested I cut my hair now and donate it to “Locks for Love.” “Maybe you’ll feel empowered,” she’d said.
I’m just not ready. I don’t want this to happen at all, much less do something before I have to. It’s stupid, I know, this angst over a temporary condition. Such a small thing compared to other losses and risks. But it has been a comfort through the diagnosis, the biopsies, the MRI, Pet scan, echocardiogram, and boob-exchange (forty-three year old friends for slightly bigger, round, vinyl-rippled, somewhat hard, but perky boobs) to look into the mirror and see myself, eyes a little sadder, but face and hair same as always.
A scalp-capped skull instead of my brown hair with its highlights and lowlights framing my face? It’s hard to think about. Hell, a bad hair day is tough on self-confidence.
Other women get this. When their faces fall at the news of my cancer, they almost always ask, “Will you lose your hair?”
At times, when I’ve felt the evidence of my surgery is obvious - the bulge of the drains under my shirt, the pink bracelet – I’ve been aware of meeting the eyes of women I encounter in Shaws or Lupes Drugstore. Every time, I’ve received smiles of such warmth that I’ve thought, “They know… and they’d understand how I feel about my hair.” And, as has happened in almost every conversation since my operation, I believe that if we fell into a chat before the stranger ran off to pick up a child at school, drop off dry cleaning or buy groceries, each would have a story of a friend or mother or sister and breast cancer. So I smile back with sincere warmth as well, because we are in this together. We are all women. We have breasts. This can happen. Depending on the day, I feel like saying, “Have you had a mammogram lately?”
I bought a wig and actually, it’s realistic and becoming. But will it be itchy and hot once I’m bald? Will it stay in its box in my closet because I can’t stand to wear it? Will I be a turban-lady?
So, I’m going to wait for the day when I wake to a hair-littered pillow to play with the scissors. I’ll go to a short shag, then a bob, then a pixie cut. I haven’t had short hair since I was five, but I wore it with a cowgirl’s attitude then.
* * *
The fall-out started when I washed my hair before going to a Conservation Commission meeting. I’d wrapped a navy blue towel in a turban around my hair after stepping out of the shower. As always, I left it up while I brushed my teeth and applied eyeliner and blush. When I shook my hair loose, the towel was coated with silvery strands.
Omigod, omigod, it’s happening. I thought fearfully. And that’s how I felt. I was afraid. I waived the blow dryer and brushing. My hands trembled as I fluffed my still ample tresses with cautious fingers. I selected a shirt mindful of what might better camouflage the situation. Certainly not black. A pale aqua tee shirt? Yes.
At the meeting, every one of my furtive glances at my chest revealed a scatter of hairs. Inconspicuously, I hoped, I gathered them in a nonchalant sweep of my hand and dropped them on the floor. No one’s looking. They’re focused on the meeting, taking notes… I’m sure someone will vacuum in the morning…
After the meeting ended, I went home to my husband, Dave. “It’s happening,” I said. He reached out for a hug and I snuggled in. I felt shaky, but I don’t remember crying.
“I’m cutting it off,” I decided suddenly and ran upstairs. Pulling my hair on top of my head, I tied it in a ponytail and took my scissors out of the cabinet.
“Are you sure you want to do this so soon?” Dave had followed me upstairs and watched my face in the mirror.
“What more do you want, Dave? Look at this!” I raked my fingers across my scalp and held up, accusingly, handfuls of hair.
“Do what makes you feel better,” he said gently.
But he was right. I was rash. I’m glad I didn’t shave my head or go for the pixie cut then. I cut off five inches, but it took two weeks for the majority to fall. The gradual loss made it easier I think, but once it was over, my relief made me realize the anxiety of every combing, every head toss, every shower, every touch of my head to someone else… for I was generous in lavishing hair on others.
Every hug left residue on shoulders. Each kiss risked a little spare hair. On the way to the car the other day, my daughter, Casey, sputtered and snorted, “Pft, pfft, pffft! I must have walked through a spider web!” No. It was not a web. She wiped her lip-glossy mouth and held up a straggly offering of Mom-strands.
We had to laugh.
I hadn’t seen my nephew, Christopher, since my surgery, so his hug on a recent visit was long and loving. When we pulled away from each other, he bore an unkempt fu manchu, my hair, caught in his scruffy beard.
Again, laughter. Sharing, sharing.
For now, for a short while longer, I can pass, although my hair is old-lady thin and wispy. Not my best look. But I took my wig for its maiden voyage yesterday – a brisk walk with my dear friend and walking buddy, Michele, and then dinner at Barcelona with my sister Francie, her husband Matt, and my nephew Campbell. Breezes did not budge it, other restaurant patrons were oblivious, and my loved ones were complimentary. Success. And I felt better.
When I went to the restaurant ladies room and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I smiled. There I was! Not the gaunt, unhappy, almost-bald woman, but me!
An Earth, Wind and Fire song came over the speaker. I eyed my mirror-self and gave her a grin. Then we danced, just a gleeful little body shake, together. Maybe when this is all over, I’ll get me a red cowboy hat.