Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Tag: hair loss

Taking It All Off

I stopped wearing a wig to class.

That’s right. I have stood in front of a room full of people, some of whom must read my comments on their work and wonder what I could possibly teach them that they do not already know, revealing my newly growing hair and my still evident white scalp.

I used to teach public speaking in a time when the nervous overcame their nerves if they imagined a classroom full of naked people. It is tougher to be naked in front of a classroom of people not expressing their reactions to your words.

I made the decision after the darn wig flew off my head while I spoke to my law school students. One minute it was there on my head. The next instant it was on the floor behind me. I was mortified. I laughed and snatched it up and stuck it back on my head. No one else laughed. As I have said before, people are kind. On a prior occasion my wig flew off my head while I drove. It is windy in Chicago. Lucky me, the passenger side window was closed at the time so the wig bounced off of it and down onto the empty seat beside me. Had the window been open I would have had to stop the car on Elston Avenue and chase it onto the property of the Morton Salt Company. It cost me more than $100. I would have chased it wherever it took me.

My hair has been filling in. When I saw my hairdresser a second time she acknowledged that–so far–“she” (my hair is a person unto herself) was not growing in thick and full as the hair of some other chemotherapy patients has. The part on the left side of my head is wide. It’s also lower than it has ever been. It appears that my hair has decided on its own to simulate the “comb over.” I know, it sounds silly, but the hair on the left side of my head is thinner than the hair on my right side. It resists all efforts to comb, wet, or paste it down. Each morning I wake to find that it is standing up, not out, and trying to creep toward the right side of my head.

Maybe men have been teased for a condition over which they have no control. Perhaps hair will naturally cover a head’s bald spots if left to its own devices.

Of course not. That is the type of fanciful thinking that a woman of my education and training ought to reject.

But what if it were true? Maybe the same hairs that seem determined to cover my bald spot were determined to kick off the wig. Something kicked it off. I did not shake my head all that powerfully the day it fell to the floor.

I’m not going to wear the wigs I bought unless I think they will make me feel better or make the day more fun. They are accessories now, not necessities. I am at peace with the pieces of my hair that have returned.

Not everyone likes my choice.

I stood in the hair products aisle at the Walgreens drug store studying a product called After Party by Bed Head that looked like a neon pink adult sex toy and promised to smooth my flyaway hair without weighing it down. (It works, my flyaway hairs are smooth but not weighed down. They still aim toward the right side of my head.) A woman joined me for a moment and commented, “You do need to do something about your hair!”

Not everyone is nice.

I answered, “I did. It’s called cancer.”

She made no further comment, just took a jar of some kind of wax for hair that grows like a hedge in a maze in a children’s book about wizards and witches, and walked away. See, I’m not always nice either.

This past week I waited for one of my evening classes to start with a student who shared the fact that this year she also learned that she had cancer. She can’t be even half of my age and she has survived stage three cervical cancer. She declined to have a hysterectomy because she has always wanted to have children. She told me that she chose to go to her cancer treatments alone because she did not want her family to be depressed by what depressed her. That way, when she was with them, their spirits would be positive enough to buoy her own to a place they might otherwise not reach.

I cannot imagine going through my own challenges without my best friend Barb watching for my allergic reaction to the chemotherapy drug, my sister’s hand stroking my hair while I writhed in pain, my brother’s strong shoulder, my niece’s steady hand on the wheel of my car, my friend Dominique to minister to my body’s need for natural pain relief and vitamin support, my other friends’ calls, messages and cards of support, or my mom’s insistence that I climb into bed and rest.

My student’s family was there for her, too. However, her family did not know just how frightening it was to take a chemotherapy-type pill she called Pegasus that killed cancer and healthy cells. It was a twelve-year-old patient who sat beside her waiting for radiation treatment in the basement of a hospital so large that she got lost finding her way to appointments.

I have been the recipient of some surprising confidences in my career as an educator.

A student once asked me to “pinky promise” never to tell anyone at school that she suffered from a learning disability. We went to the law library and did her research assignment together after she admitted that she could not find her way because all the books looked the same color to her and the Dewey Decimal system meant nothing to her in finding her way.

A young woman with three children and no husband told me that her babies’ father, depressed over the fact that one of his legs was amputated following a gang-style shooting, had beaten her with his crutch. She grew up in a house in which her father’s violence toward her mother had the children of the house walking on “tippy-toes” for their entire shared childhood. No one wanted to step wrongly and bring a beating upon their mom. Her mom wanted better for my student. She taught her girls, “Never get into the car with a boy. You never know who he angered on his way to see you.” The young woman told me two of her cousins were shot while they sat in the backseat of some boy’s car. One of them died when she was a child with child.

When my student’s boyfriend hit her with his crutch, the woman realized that she had the power to answer violence. She decided not to tell her children or the aging grandparents with whom she and her children live. She decided not to make them live her drama because it could not help but upset them. So she asked her boyfriend to meet her out on the street near his car.

She followed him out to the street and beat him with her son’s little aluminum baseball bat until she had blackened both of his eyes and he had retreated to the front seat of his car and prepared to speed off. She doesn’t think the boyfriend will hit her again, but she cannot be sure that his violent anger has been tamed by having been shamed.

I guess there comes a time in many lives when what we have hidden must be shared, even if by sharing it we risk laughter, mocking, scorn, judgment, or tears. Life is about struggle and success. It is about learning mispent and utilized. It is about fear and courage.

If you have a chance to do so, take it all off and share with someone else what life has taught you. I teach, but my students teach me, too. In their recounting of their lives’ lessons I am made a better person. My family and friends have shown me, too, that the truth of my life is something they accept and wish to share. By sharing with someone else such trust we earn theirs and often find that what lies beneath wigs, masks, labels, and secrets is far more inspiring than what we might imagine.

A Woman’s Dilemma: What to Do about My Hair?

My hair has been a trooper. The oncologists predicted I would be bald in week three of chemotherapy. I am not bald yet and this is the third month since I began chemotherapy. My last chemotherapy session was December 21st. I still have hair. I can work with that.

The hair on my lower torso was quick to jump ship. Two lone hairs remained on one leg until this month. My underarms were bare soon afterward. Even the five or six tiny hairs that once grew on the tops of my big toes have been gone for a long time. I can work with that.

Those pesky hairs on the upper lip and chin disappeared–except the white ones that can grow too long. They hung on for much longer, contributing to my feeling that cancer aged me. I shaved them off.

Then came the arm hairs. One morning I washed in the shower and noted their persistence. I was alarmed that night to see that every last one of them was gone in the same day.

In recent weeks I have noticed that I am down to a few eyelashes. I can work with that. I use an eyebrow pencil to fill in bald patches in my eyebrows.

My hair on my head has thinned very gradually. There were no bald patches. I can work with that. I washed it once a week no matter how much I longed to keep it cleaner. I fed it vitamins and selenium. I combed it gently once a day. I ignored the widening part on my left side and in the back–symbols of the more substantial “parting” to come. I watched as the gray hairs fell first, a phenomenon that I thought of as “God’s gentle touch-up.”

At one point I cut an inch off of my bob because the ends looked scraggly. This week I cut my hair to about one inch, a little longer on the right side of my part. It’s not an attractive cut. When I awaken, my hair is standing up and I look like I have survived a bout with cancer or like my hairdresser lacks a license (I do not have a license to cut hair).

I first tried the red wig. My hair is dishwater blonde, sometimes light brown. It has not been color treated since August. In my home, under gentle lighting, I loved the fire. I recently heard that red heads get more sex than blondes, challenging the notion that blondes have more fun. I am not interested in their fun, but their bold coloring seemed so much more encouraging than any familiar hair color. I longed to display that spirit as I faced my life’s most serious challenge to date (cancer, not hair loss). It is a Raquel Welch wig. I like the way it is made. It fits fine. The style is sassy. My hair is straight and fine. This wig has waves and looks tossed by a gentle breeze. This is the most fun that I have had since my cancer diagnosis. I feel brave in it. I look different.

When I got to school on Thursday night and saw it under the bathroom’s stark white bulbs, I thought of Lucille Ball and was worried. I resolved to enjoy it anyway. I never chose it to resemble me. I chose it because I am changing and, after months of feeling like a caterpillar with tufts of hair (gray, then blonde, then brown), I longed for some of the butterfly’s beauty, even if I had to borrow it.

Students were kind. I think most people are kind. One fellow cancer survivor even told me about a procedure by which eyelashes are attached to the eyelid even if you have no lashes of your own. I won’t be pursuing that procedure, but it is good to know that there are ways to handle losses any individual finds hard to bear.

I tried the blonde wig with red highlights on Friday. It is an asymmetrical bob. On one side the hair comes down in a long curl a la Nicki Minaj. The long curl is too much for everyday wear. I want to clip it off, but wore it anyway because a bold bird preens over its colorful feathers. This wig never quite sat correctly on my head. It rode up in the back, producing that conehead effect some wigs have. The long curl tickled my chin like Rip Van Winkle’s beard. My law students urged me not to clip it. One students suggested a color like pink. Candy colors are so cheerful.

As soon as I returned to my car, I dragged off the wig and ignored my own misgivings about the remnants of my hair. Hair is not much different than clothing after a couple of days spent in a wig. My hair is comfortable, like sweat pants or pajamas. It does not matter to me that it looks so foreign. It is still my hair. Moreover, as my hair has fallen out, I have had an opportunity to pluck so many of its strands from coats, sweaters, blouses, and pillows, that I feel like I have said goodbye to it more than a thousand times. I am long, long, long past crying as we bid each other farewell.

What remains is like me, I guess. It is stubborn. It stays even when it is no longer welcome. I may cut it down to size, but cannot “bare” to shave it off. The truth is that, while my hair is not the important loss it is for many other women, it is me, too. It remains welcome even as I shed parts of me that I no longer want (cancer) or need (chin hairs).

I would not be honest if I did not admit that I tied on a wool neck scarf before picking up a sandwich at a drive-thru on my way home. The scarf reminded me of a babushka (a friend said that term is out-of-date, I should call it a do-rag). It was better than the sight of my hair, which shot up in a million, make that a thousand, make that a dozen, oh, maybe just five directions. Change can be difficult. I have changed in many ways that have caused more tears than this change.

Like the other changes, I intend to handle this one with courage and a little smile. Smile with me and it will be fine. As I said before, I think most people are kind. I can work with that.

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