Before I got sick, my hair was something to envy. I had thick, pliable, cooperative hair that could be dried straight or neatly French braided. When curled it held its shape; it could be knotted into a bun when wet, and let down to reveal beautiful waves when it dried. I loved my hair. The color was a wheaty brown that reflected light, and framed my face, accentuating the angles of my cheekbones and chin. It had subtle red undertones all year and blonde highlights that appeared in the summer with minimal sun exposure and no effort on my part.
When I began chemotherapy, I feared my hair would fall out, yet I was strangely fascinated with how I might look without any hair. My post-surgery treatment regimen of Interferon 2b-Alpha, a synthetic protein peptide that was considered a biological chemotherapy, was designed to mimic a protein already present in the body. Because of its non-traditional nature, I was told that my hair would not fall out. It might grow thin, but I certainly would not lose it all.
However, throughout the fall my hair continued to steadily let go of my scalp and between September, when I started treatment, and Christmas, my ponytail had shrunken considerably and the flesh on my temples and the place on my scalp where my ponytail usually rested were much more visible. I cut my hair to shoulder length, mostly because I was tired of sitting on the edge of my bed each morning, running my fingers through my hair, and seeing the strands on my palms when I pulled my hand away. At first I could count the hairs; ten, fifteen, twenty. Then they became too many to count and I was devastated by this. I let them fall from my fingers to the floor each morning, hoping if I made them disappear they would somehow sprout from my head again.
But they didn’t. So after the disaster in Montana, I decided it was time. I would not watch my hair fall out anymore. I would cut it all off, and get a wig. It had to be better than watching it all slowly fall out, accumulating on the floor, in the shower, and all over the backs of my sweaters and coats.
My aunt took me to Merle Norman, the only place she knew to get wigs. As a hair dresser and salon owner, she had scouted out the store before bringing my mother and I there one Saturday afternoon. I tried on a variety of styles. Many looked fake and it was obvious I was wearing a wig.
I finally settled on one that was slightly lighter than my natural color and longer than my hair currently was. It also had bangs, which I hadn’t sported since elementary school. Once it was boxed up and we were in the car, I asked the question I had wanted to ask all day.
“So will you cut my hair now?”
My aunt looked at me in the rear view mirror and sort of smiled, “Are you sure?”
I felt a knot in my chest, “Well I can’t wear the wig unless we do.”
As we drove to her salon I was nervous. I’d never had short hair, not since kindergarten, and then it still covered my ears. When we arrived, she worked without talking. I didn’t look at myself. When she was done, I didn’t recognize the person in the mirror blinking back at me. I put on the wig then and Aunt Jo cut that too, styling it to make it more like a style I might have actually chosen for my real hair.
I said goodbye to my mother and thanked my aunt, before heading back to my apartment at school, driving alone I was anxious to show my roommates the wig I was wearing, needing them to tell me it looked good. But when I arrived, no one was parked outside, and my heart began to beat more quickly. I climbed the stairs and unlocked the door, letting myself in. I went down the hall to my room.
The moment I walked in, I caught myself in the mirror hanging on the wall opposite the door. I was startled then, not recognizing myself. I took off my coat slowly, not taking my eyes off that mirror. I walked closer, trembling. I looked ridiculous. It couldn’t be me. Now an inch from the mirror, I grabbed at my cheeks, pulling the skin hard enough that it hurt. It was really me.
My heart was racing. Who was I? What had I done? I needed to take that thing off my head, that itchy mass of fake hair. I ripped it off and threw it against the wall. But what I looked at now was even more frightening than what I had seen when I walked in. the little bit of my hair that was left stuck up in every direction. I tried to brush it down, but it stuck to the brush, controlled by static electricity, making my head look like a Chia pet. My lips trembled, and my body shook as I crumbled to the floor, pulling at my hair, wanting not for it to fall out, but for it to grow long again. I pulled and pulled, but it didn’t grow. I lay on the floor for a long time, and the crying turned to sobs and the sobs to hysterics. I couldn’t stop.
What felt like a long time later I called my mother, who couldn’t understand a word I said through the gasps I was taking, trying to get the cries under control. She told me she was coming, and that I shouldn’t go anywhere. I nodded, not able to speak through the wracking sobs. She made the hour drive to my apartment, arriving in forty minutes.
I answered the door still crying and she put her arms around me and we stood there for some time. Then she came in and convinced me that it wasn’t so bad. We experimented with headbands and scarves, bobby pins and barrettes. She didn’t leave until my roommates were back, and they all assured me that I looked great. My roommates and I named the wig Sally that night, and they even took turns trying her on, all agreeing I looked much better than they did in it.
I wore Sally every day of student-teaching after that. The teachers knew, but none ever had the nerve to ask me why; they preferred to talk about me behind my back, but after that first meltdown I did what I had learned to do well by then. I made jokes about it and I kept going. To work, to class, and to the elementary school where I did my student teaching; I kept living and moved on, taking it one day, one hour, one moment at a time.