“How soon will I lose my hair?”
“Between day 12 and day 15,” the chemo nurse said. Then her eyes lifted, skimming my head in assessment.
“For you,” she added. “Day 13.”
I don’t know how she knew. I didn’t ask. What I’d learn is that chemo (and hospice) nurses are a different breed. They see, feel, and know things normal people don’t. They are also the best needle stickers on the planet: deft and precise. When you know what you’re doing, the stick should never hurt. When your port moves accidentally underneath your skin and flips, those nurses can turn it around from the outside of your skin so quickly you won’t register the pain until after they’re done.
I will always hold chemo and hospice nurses in the highest esteem.
After my first treatment, I was determined not to be sick. I would NOT be a patient. I would continue to do the things I had always done. And when it was done, I would go on and live the life I had always led. Nothing would change. It would be an unfortunate blip on the radar. I’d do my time–the treatment–and when it was done, it would be over. I’d go back to my old life as if it had never happened.
Back then, obviously, I was a fucking fool.
On the night of day 13, I was sitting on a bar stool, buzzed and flirting.
This was business as usual. The object of my affection was particularly good looking, and our chemistry was off the charts. He had an amazing body and a confident sexuality that made my pulse roar in my ears.
That was my forte: Find physical attraction and engage at light speed. Suck every sigh, gasp, and orgasm out of the relationship. Fuck and fight in equal and epic proportions for maximum intensity. Provide lousy or close to no communication outside the physical. Crash and burn the relationship into the ground, and do it all in a three-months—tops–span. Then onto the next.
I was an expert. Maybe I still am.
He was leaning into me and looking down into my eyes with huge promise when I unconsciously ran my fingers through my hair. When I placed my hand back in my lap, I happened to look down.
I know it sounds stupid, but my first thought was that it was cat hair. There was just so much of it, and it stood out so starkly against the back drop of my black tights. At the time, I had three in-door cats and kept a rolling lint brush within reach at all times to “de-feline” myself before walking out the door. My first thought was, “How did you NOT notice all this before you left the house?”
Maybe it’s also because I believed it would come out in strands.
I didn’t know it fell out in clumps.
I didn’t know when it begins, it’s sudden. And rapid.
When I realized what it was, I excused myself to the bathroom. I studied myself in the low-lit mirror, unsure and afraid. Then I gently ran my fingers through, not wanting to cause more to fall out than was necessary.
Despite the light pressure, when I pulled my hand out, it held a clump.
I can’t tell you exactly how that felt. Surreal comes to mind.
I returned to my bar stool and attempted to continue flirting. I tried to pay attention to what he was saying, but soon all I could register was that his lips were moving. I didn’t want to give into the reality of what was happening. I was trying so hard to grasp onto the last vestiges of that life . . . that person I was getting closer to losing with every second.
But my hand would inevitably, despite itself, find its way to my head. When I’d see the hair, I’d quickly brush it off against my leg and let it fall to the ground underneath my chair. Hoping no one would see. I can only imagine how much was there when I left.
When I could no longer focus on what the guy was saying—in defeat–I downed my drink and told him, sadly and regretfully, I had to go.
He was shocked. Didn’t understand what had changed so quickly when it had been obvious we shared such mutual attraction mere minutes before.
I walked out the door and sat in my car, which was parked in the front. Through the large picture window adorned in the blinking neon lights of the bar, I could see him and the chair where I had sat. I watched for a few minutes, not able to start the car. Eventually, another girl sat in my chair. They began to talk. To flirt.
She had long, blonde hair.
In that moment—completely, bitterly, and irrationally—I hated her.
She stole my chair. My sex. My life.
The next day, it was worse. I woke up to clumps all over the pillow case, in the sheets, and in the shower drain. No one tells you that it’s a somewhat physically painful process. The top of your head burns, aches, and is sensitive to the touch as the roots begin to die. And it itches like hell.
I had been in denial, thinking maybe I’d be one of the lucky small percent who would get to keep it. I had put off getting fitted for a wig, which had to be ordered.
I was running out of time.
I called my boss and told her I wouldn’t be going into work. I opened the yellow pages and scanned. I don’t know why, but for some reason, I did not want to stay in town. I treated it like some covert operation. As I looked down the list, a name of a business jumped out, and I wrote down the address on a blank envelope. Then I got in my car and drove 45 minutes three towns away.
The shop was in a strip mall sandwiched between two businesses with dingy, ugly storefronts. There was a tattoo parlor and a head shop advertising drug paraphernalia and porn videos.
The bell chimed when I walked through the door. The shop was empty except for a beast of a man who sat at the cashier counter, flipping through People magazine. He glanced up and greeted me. I acknowledged him with a small smile and walked to the far wall that was full–floor to ceiling—with wigs.
I stood there. Just staring. Letting my eyes take in the overwhelming amount of colors, styles, and lengths. I didn’t touch or pick any of them up off the stands. I felt rooted to one spot.
The beast of a man walked over. He was well over 6 feet tall. He was bald with two small, gold hoops in each ear. His shirt, a tropical print with pink flamingos, was opened to mid chest. Two heavy gold chains circled his bulging neck, and their hanging medallions nestled in his thick chest hair. The hands that fluttered when he talked were covered in chunky gold rings.
In contrast, when he spoke, his voice was soft and feminine with a slight lisp.
“Can I help you? What are you looking for, Hon?”
When I didn’t answer right away, he asked, “Do you have a party to go to? Or are you just looking for something fun for a change?”
It was mid-November, or I’m certain he would have assumed it was for Halloween.
Mutely, I shook my head; not looking at him directly, continuing to let my eyes flit over the wall of wigs.
Uncomfortably, he cleared his voice, smiled, and said, “Well, if you need any help, just let me know” and started to turn away.
I needed help. But I didn’t know how to ask.
I lifted my hand and dragged my fingers through my hair. When I pulled it out, I extended and showed him the clump in my palm.
“It’s falling out. It’s going to be gone soon,” I explained. I stopped, knowing my voice would crack if I didn’t.
His eyes widened in understanding. Then lowered and locked onto the implanted port protruding out from under the skin near my collar bone.
“Oh, Honey” was all he said.
I pulled the insurance paperwork out of my purse and handed it to him, pointing at my budget.
“This is more than enough,“ he said. “We can do a lot with this. Let me help you.”
We went through the lines of wigs and some he had in the back. There were so many to choose from. He asked if I wanted to go with something completely different and have “fun” with it. Or did I want to find something close to my current style and color.
I told him the more I could look like me, the better.
He chose some different lengths and tried to match the color the best he could. He explained the benefits and cons of synthetic versus human hair. None of them were an exact match, but he found a few that might work.
He took me in a backroom that had a hairdresser’s table with lit mirror and chair. When I sat down, he gathered up my shoulder-length hair and tucked it into a nylon cap. Then he began to place, adjust, and show me each wig.
He tried to make it fun. Really he did. With his whooshy, animated hand gestures. Even complimenting the ones that looked ridiculous. Despite my wish to keep the color close to my own blonde, he insisted on showing me what I’d look like as a red head, a brunette, and a pink-and-blue-haired punk rocker.
He was kind.
He was so very kind.
Somewhere between the fourth and fifth fitting, I noticed the top of the electric razor peeking out from one of the table’s drawers.
I stared at it for the longest time.
And realized why I’d been sent here.
“Will you shave it off for me?”
He stopped adjusting the wig on my head and stared at me in the mirror with surprise. Then hesitation.
Softly, I told him, “It’s so hard to watch it fall out. Like there’s no control. I don’t think I can do it myself.”
His eyes got glossy and started to fill and brim. He turned away to hide them.
“Of course. Hold on.”
He went to the front of the shop, and I heard the latch turn to lock. When he came back, he took the electric razor from the drawer.
He held it, posed over my head, took a deep breath, and said “Ready?”
He shaved my head in perfect symmetrical strips starting from the back to the front. As each new strip was revealed, he would rub his hand gently over the skin and say something encouraging. I eventually closed my eyes.
I think he cried while he did it.
I felt gratitude there was someone who did. Someone who could.
When he was done, we both stared at my reflection. He ran his hands over the stubble and said, “You have a beautiful head. Perfectly shaped. Many people don’t, you know.”
Deadpan, I said, “I’m just relieved there’s not a Gorbachev birthmark I wasn’t aware of.”
We both burst out laughing.
I paid for two wigs. They had to be ordered and styled, so it would take two weeks. He helped me pick out some scarves and a hat to hold me over. He showed me how to tie the scarves into different styles. He stapled the receipts together, so they would be easy to submit to the insurance company.
We hugged when I left, and I thanked him.
I walked out.
The strip mall was the same, but looked different somehow. Maybe it was the sunshine on the window panes. Or how the light reflected off and onto the sidewalk. It was blinding.
No. It wasn’t that.
I walked in a person.
I walked out a patient.