My husband and I went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve last year, where we met up with a teacher he used to work with. I didn’t know her as well as my husband did because they used to work together and I would only occasionally join them and their group for dinners. This teacher, apparently, had been suffering with memory issues, so it was interesting that she didn’t recognize my husband but did recognize me because she remembered my hair, which at the time was salt and pepper, curly, and full.
I loved my hair. It framed my face like a cornucopia of silver curls: it was parted along the left side and fell to my neck and chin. It was reminiscent of a 1930s bob, but it was a fuller mass of curls. I enjoyed the paradox of combining my silver hair — a sign of maturity — with a youthful, flowing army of curls all around my head. I also enjoyed the many different hair products made specifically for curly hair. Deva was my favorite product: the gel smelled like fruit and kept the spring of my curls intact. My hairstyle was what people noticed first about me and was, without a doubt, my favorite feature. However, I didn’t always love my hair. When I was a teenager, it was as if we were in a protracted war: I tried everything to get long, straight hair: I ironed it, slept with huge rollers in place, and even used chemicals to try to get the popular style of the day. All that pain and effort was useless on a rainy or humid day when my tenacious curls defiantly made their presence known by coiling up like a Brillo pad. I’d have given anything to be able to stay home from school on those days. Then, when I was eighteen, I had my hair cut short. I recall it looking a bit like a pixie cut and would have to use a hair dryer to make it straight. One day a fashion-conscious friend and I went to a swim class and once we were out of the water she began to notice the curls springing to life as my hair dried on its own. She raved about the beauty of my curls and taught me to love my natural look. I felt so liberated at that moment, as it happily marked the end of my inexhaustible quest for straight hair. And I enjoyed my curls from that day forward.
Recently, when I was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma, I knew I would lose my hair once I began chemotherapy and wanted to hold on to it as long as I could. Ironically, my diagnosis came right when I happened to need a haircut but COVID-19 prevented that from happening as all the salons were closed. My hair was getting overly full and too hard to control: it was teetering on the edge of going from cute and curly to frazzled and frizzy. I found myself somewhat conflicted: on one hand I didn’t really want to lose my hair, but on the other hand, knowing I was going to lose it anyway made me feel impatient to get the whole “chemotherapy thing” started and done with.
Two weeks after my first treatment my hair did, in fact, start to fall out. I would run my fingers through it and would end up with small bunches in my hand. The first time it happened, my husband and I had just finished dinner and my mood quickly shifted from relaxed and content to anxious and uneasy. Even more fell out in the shower, which was extremely upsetting because I saw hair circling the drain, like a scene from Psycho, except instead of Marion Crane’s blood, it was my own hair pooling on the shower floor. I was struck with how surreal it was to keep losing my hair like that, and I couldn’t stop myself from removing small bunches at a time. If I were reading or watching TV, my attention would turn from whatever I had been focusing on to removing my hair. It reminded me of a sunburn that began to peel, and it became an obsession to keep picking at it. That was me. I had become transfixed with the process of hair just falling out. It was also physical proof that my life was changing drastically. I still looked like me, but I didn’t look the same.
In about a week or two, most of my hair finally fell out, so I decided to cut whatever was left very short and started wearing hats and scarves, but most of the time I just went around with a bare head. I would take selfies constantly, then examine what I looked like without hair. So much face! But as I studied my face with all its distinct features, I became intrigued by what I saw, as if part of me was beginning to emerge whom I hadn’t taken notice of before. I realized that hair definitely served as a camouflaging agent. Without it, there was a whole new me, like a snake shedding its skin.
Today, my newly revealed face has a lively expression and an impish grin that reveals a host of emotions brewing underneath the surface, just waiting to be seen or heard. This subtle grin seems to take pleasure from the rather humorous side of life, sometimes with a sardonic, sideways glance. It’s a quirky but cute look defined by spontaneity and receptivity. Without the cover of hair, I’ve become more aware of how my facial expressions are connected to my emotions. The discovery of one expression in particular surprised me because it is essentially the same look of contained discontent that my sister putters about with. I’m intrigued by my new look because I feel so exposed and transparent. Now the bareness reveals unfiltered facial articulations, along with marks left by the sun sprinkled all over my face from a lifetime of happy summer days at the beach. I never noticed how my nose took up so much space — and then there are my big ears which I had always been careful to cover up with different hairstyles. I like my newfound and funny smile, because it reveals a person who is facing this experience of cancer and chemotherapy head-on (pardon the pun) with openness, humor, and dignity, and sometimes with fear and sadness also. My unconcealed face is now in sync with my defenses, which have also been unmasked in the process. As my body changes from day to day due to a variety of side effects, my moods fluctuate as well, and I try to acknowledge them so that I may accept whatever the day brings.
Sometimes, the monumental reality of all that I am going through suddenly makes me feel vulnerable and scared. I can become irritable, impatient, and easily annoyed, and I was never really like that before. I’ve come to understand that these are moments when my defenses are down. I feel emotionally exposed and tend to react with intensity to every situation that comes my way, as if I’m walking through the Haunted House in Coney Island with the heightened awareness that just about anything might linger around the corner, ready to jump out at me. The hypervigilance is exhausting but there is no choice but to keep moving forward, and no hair to bury and hide my emotions in.
In the months following that initial round of chemotherapy, I noticed that my attitude about not having hair gradually began to change. I started to miss hair not just for emotional reasons, but for practical ones as well. It never occurred to me before that my hair served a purpose other than to obscure my ears. Until I lost it, I never noticed how much it absorbs and disperses perspiration in the summer months, or keeps you warm in colder weather. My hats and scarves became uncomfortable to wear in the summer and by fall I was just missing having hair. My bald head, still a symbol of my bravery, was also a reminder that I was not yet well. Then as now, there are times when I wish I could just put cancer aside even if for an hour, an afternoon, or a day, and just live — live to enjoy the wind blowing my hair about as I run and laugh and play like a healthy person.
I don’t look at my experience with cancer as a misfortune, even if it abruptly altered my body and my lifestyle. Instead, I try to see it for the lessons this experience has taught me. I haven’t had hair for nine months and now that it’s beginning to grow back, I am eager and hopeful, but people are always reminding me how beautiful my hair was and how it will be once again. Curiously, I find that I’m not so attached to my hair anymore, mostly because I recognize how much I used to hide behind it. I have also come to understand that I am not in control of many situations in life, that every day is a new experience, and that I can accept that I have cancer without thinking of it as a punishment. Losing my hair was not some retribution by the Universe; in fact, it led me to look inside myself with an honesty I might never have otherwise. Being able to accept cancer without judging myself empowers me to feel brave. The self-criticism that once accompanied self-reflection has washed away, like strands of hair down the drain, and I am left with more self-compassion and self-love. So now when I recall memories that make me feel sad, or actions that stir regret, I remember them with more kindness toward myself than I ever have before. There is now more room for love.
It’s true that I still get impatient and critical of myself and others, but I’ve come to understand that those are feelings of frustration, and they, too, shall pass. They don’t define who I am now and neither does my once springy hair. So who am I? I am a bald woman with cancer on a long road to heaven. This road is filled with opportunities to give and receive, to learn, to love and rejoice, and to appreciate what life has to offer, even when obstacles fall in my way. There is much life to enjoy and much learning to experience. The sense of sudden, somewhat startling exposure I felt when I started losing my hair now presents itself like that old familiar adage: when one door closes, another opens.
* A Note to the Reader: “Hair” was one of the first essays I wrote when I started my blog, and it continues to be one of my favorite pieces because I continue to look at my hairless head several times a day with a variety of reactions. With time, I began to realize that the feelings and emotions I originally expressed in “Hair” didn’t quite say enough. At the beginning of my journey with cancer and chemotherapy, I think I needed to feel that I had to handle anything that came my way, but eventually I began to feel more vulnerable, frightened, and sad. I would look back on “Hair” and think of everything that had yet to reveal itself during the months that followed — everything I had yet to feel, articulate, or convey. Allowing more vulnerable feelings to emerge didn’t affect my ability or desire to be able to say, “I got this covered,” but I began to understand that going through cancer and chemotherapy was more complicated than I expected, which made me want to revisit “Hair” and make some changes.
I named my revision “A New Hairstyle,” kept some of the original elements, added several new thoughts, and tried to express myself clearly. I chose to write “A New Hairstyle” rather than merely delete and replace “Hair” because it reflects where I found myself at a later time with some distance and reflection. To me they are both poignant and worth keeping in their own right.