Below is an excerpt from my own memoir, Both Sides Now.
Week # 3.
To rate the weeks by difficulty, this is the worst so far. My older sister Colleen has come to help me. Little do I know that she is the perfect person for what is to transpire.
Two weeks ago I walked through a door into a world that no one would choose. From the time that purple solution ran into my vein, from the time I lay down under the radiation machine, I sensed I would never be the same.
Maybe my life was too good and I wasn’t looking for this kind of upheaval. I wonder what’s so good about being the same? Aren’t we supposed to grow to evolve? Well, I liked the old Mary-Jo. I liked being in her body. She was resilient, quickly bouncing back from any assault. During my third week of treatment I realize that this is a new body I inhabit, and it doesn’t bounce backward or forward.
My mouth is lined with canker sores. Air rushing in is like acid. So the joy I feel from seeing my dogs leap into the air after a tennis ball must not morph into a smile. Full out smiles hurt.
Up until now, I had no idea all the things my tongue does all day. But each time I attempt to run it over my teeth or swallow or spit I want to cry. I don’t, because even that would hurt. Sometimes I wince loudly. My sister mirrors back only compassion.
I feel sorry for myself, and I said it. I’m strangely accepting of the me who wants to draw energy from normal people…
…my hair is falling out. It was supposed to “thin,” but each day finds more clumps on my pillow. I have an appointment with Summer, my hairdresser, in a couple of days. She and I discussed hair loss three years ago. She understands. Her father lost his during chemo.
When Colleen and I walk into the salon, I feel as if I am going to visit a compassionate friend. Summer’s huge mirror reflects back my resolve. I want to take charge of what is still under my control
“Just cut it,” I say. I want it gone. If it’s going to thin, then let’s make it less obvious.
She begins to wash my hair, and it clumps in her hands and hangs suspended. Before the mirror she struggles to comb through the mass that looks like a bird’s nest. Across the room, a young assistant watches my hair accumulated on the floor. Do I imagine her lips curled in disgust?
I gesture toward the floor. “Please get rid of this?” The mess embarrasses me. The young woman grimaces as she sweeps. I bet she isn’t aware of the look of horror on her face. I want to be young and safe like her, not me, not who I am today.
Summer tries to distract me. She tells me that human hair is used to soak up oil spills. Soon the largest environmental disaster in our country’s history will soil the Gulf Coast. I wonder what part my once shiny, healthy hair played.
The technicians at the Radiation Center call my new do, “cute.” I appreciate what they say, but I have never been “cute.” I try not to get too attached to my new look which I feel isn’t going to last.
The next morning more hair accumulates over the drain as I shower. It looks exactly the way the women in my support group described it. I don’t even question this unpredicted occurrence. This treatment is not going to follow any rules. I realize I need to do something proactive…
…The wig store is filled with Styrofoam heads that look like Dolly Parton, lipstick and all. On each is a different do. I sit before a mirror. Monica listens carefully as I explain that she should be careful with what hair I have left. She shares that she has been an EMT, as she gently positions various dos. I appreciate her trained touch.
None match the color of my reddish-blonde hair. I am attracted to a gray wig. I wonder why. It’s elegant and understated. It makes my eyes look very blue. But am I ready to go gray? I already feel so old. We look some more and finally find the same tone as mine, though darker and short. It’s almost too glamorous for how I feel.
As I consider my choices, the storeowner steps in behind me, pulling off one do, replacing it with another. I don’t like her abruptness. She is not guiding me through this difficult passage as Monica was; she is selling.
I stiffen as I see a few of my hairs flutter to the floor. “Be careful with what hair is still there.”
She moves too quickly. What is the hurry? She positions another wig, and I am sure six or seven more precious hairs are sacrificed. “Be careful,” I repeat.
I turn toward Monica, “I want her to take care of me. I liked the way she touches my head.”
Monica looks shocked. The owner steps back with an apology. My sister, a therapist, with an almost imperceptible smile, duly notes my assertiveness.
Colleen and I play with the wig at home, hamming it up, taking photos. But it’s not really a game to me. By the morning I need another plan.
“I’m going to call Summer, and I think I’ll buy that gray wig too.”
I put a tearful call into Summer’s message machine. “My hair is still falling out. I need you to shave my head.”
Back at the wig shop I agree to bring cards in to the Cancer Center with the address on them. The owner gives me a discount on my second wig, which I don’t bother to try on.
Within the hour, I stand at the kitchen counter wondering. I think I am talking to myself. “I don’t think I can sit in the salon and have my head shaved. How am I going to do this?”
“I can do it for you, Mom.”
I look up to see Kurt, my six foot four son, in a state of baldness. “Oh my God. Oh my God!” I am shocked and can’t stop laughing and crying. Within a few hours I get a photo on my phone of my son Craig’s bald head, and then Matt, his friend. Baldness is easier shared.
In my bathroom I cut off as much as I can. I want to get rid of this hair. “It’s not mine. This hair has nothing to do with me.”
I want it gone. I cut away and place the golden, auburn hair in a ziplock bag. Kurt begins to shave what is left. I want him to hurry. I remember how a month ago while waiting for my luggage at LAX, a woman had asked me what hair products I used to create that shine. Today, only my scalp shines.
When he’s done, I look at my changed reflection. The face I see in the mirror looks like a concentration camp victim. My hair was my “crowning glory.” That’s what my mother used to tell me. I can’t cry. I shed not one tear for my loss. I feel disgust at this colorless head. Now look at me. My ears, my father’s ears, stick out. I feel repulsive. I’ve never seen my head bald.
Suddenly, I feel a hand caressing it. “It’s beautiful. I remember this head from when you were a baby. Look at the shape of it. It’s beautiful.”
I do cry now, not for the loss but for the connection. Colleen sees her baby sister. And she thinks this part of me is beautiful.