I’ve always wanted to do it. But I’ve always been afraid to do it. We all have challenges we face fearlessly, and we all have issues that terrify us. One of the worst things we do to one another is ridicule one another because those issues differ from person to person. In my case, I’ve been deeply conditioned to consider my hair one of my most advantageous “feminine attributes”. I have a friend Melissa who’s done it numerous times and loved it. Another friend, Kelly, recently did it for the first time and raved about the experience. The idea of buzzing all of my hair off beckoned me, but deep down, I didn’t dare.
It is a surrealistic experience when cancer comes to visit. We watch it happen to those around us almost daily, since it’s an epidemic. We may even wonder what it would be like if it knocked on our door. We may feel like we know, since we’ve watched it knock on the next door neighbor’s door, the door across the street, and our family member’s door in another state. But until it knocks on our own door, we don’t belong to the club. We have no idea.
The friendly staff at the Grass Valley Cancer Center (at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital) broke it to my husband—he had an 87% chance of losing his hair two weeks after his first round of chemo. They could tell him the actual day, and they did. Once he started chemo he could no longer donate the hair. Jack last cut his hair (more than a trim) in 1980, when Reagan was president. The discharge folks in the Navy didn’t like his attitude, so they wouldn’t sign the papers until they shaved him. He acquiesced, took his Honorable Discharge, and headed for Yosemite. When I met him twenty-five years later, he was immediately fond of my long hair.
A few days after he received the 87% diagnosis, we were sitting at our favorite restaurant in Yuba City, and Indian place with a full bar. We’d just come from a consult at UC Davis Med Center with another oncologist, the sparkly Dr. Christensen, who told him he would most definitely lose his hair. “We passed a Super Cuts a few blocks that way,” he motioned. “I may go buzz it after lunch.”
I took a gulp of my Cosmopolitan, which was really a souped-up vodka-cran, before I answered. “Do you still want me to buzz my hair with you?” His smile said “Yes” even though his words were more politically correct. He knows better than to tell a woman what to do with any part of her body, even her hair.
He didn’t decide till we got in the truck, but then he was sure and we made a beeline. It turns out if you donate your hair, the cut is free. Who knew? We were the only two in the shop, and as if scripted for extra drama, the women seated us with our back to each other. It was as quick as it was cheap.
Rebecca, who buzzed my hair, patted me sweetly on the shoulder when I told her my motivation. “I’d do the same thing for my husband,” she said. Then she added, “But I don’t know if he’d do it for me.” I briefly wondered the same, but then I realized it did not matter.
The deadline for Jack’s hair loss came and went. “We must have misunderstood,” I said. “It must fall out during the second round of chemo.” But when that time came around, the nurse said, no, it would have already fallen out if it were going to. I could see Jack was a bit bummed, but in the grand scheme of things, of course, not really. He can’t wait for my hair to grow back, and I can tell he silently hopes I never cut it again. I am still reflecting on why and how I summoned the courage when I did. I felt at the time, deep down, that if Jack couldn’t forget he had cancer, I didn’t want to either. I wanted a visual, tactile reminder of my minute-to-minute solidarity. If he was bold enough to fight cancer, I could be bold enough to buzz off this thick, soft symbol of my identity. And of course, hair grows back.
When a friend of mine started a cancer support group called Blessed By Cancer, I thought she was a little crazy. But now I get it. When cancer knocks on your door and demands attention, priorities magically realign. The present takes center stage and the trivial and petty are more easily discarded. Fears change places like they are in a game of musical chairs. A good day becomes a tangible blessing. And those who truly love you show up along with it—suddenly at your door with food and energy and humor and unconditional love.
My hair is growing back faster than Jack’s, which perplexes him and probably annoys him. My son’s girlfriend says my hair is the perfect length now, and it’s time for a trim. It’s coming on winter and I’ll be wearing hats and scarves even more than usual. As for the future of my hair, I don’t want to think about that now. It’s not that important to me at the moment. There are so many things to do and read–and most of all appreciate each day, including the hair on my husband’s head. Here’s to another 25 years without him cutting it again.