I relaxed into the warm water, the tension in my neck and shoulders softening. I massaged shampoo into my scalp, creating cherry-scented steam. I reached out to rinse the suds off my hands…and gasped. My hands were completely covered in hair. I quickly rinsed them, reached up, and ran my hands through my hair again. It was coming out by the handful.
I snapped off the water, jumped out of the shower, and took a deep breath before I looked in the mirror. Oh, thank God. No bald spots. I carefully patted my hair with a towel.
The morning had started out so promising. I had felt so much better. The nausea and fatigue were finally gone. My husband Bob had taken our 4-year-old boy Michael and 7-year-old girl Jessica to school on his way to work. I stretched, got up, and walked down to the kitchen. I turned the heat up under the teakettle and prepared toast with butter, sugar, and cinnamon. The teakettle whistled and steamed. Little pleasures. I switched on the TV and listened to the news and weather. It would be a sunny fall day, but with gusty winds. “Not unlike my life lately,” I thought.
Before my first treatment for ovarian cancer, I had decided I would not lose my hair because the thought of being bald at 37-years old was horrifying. None of the other moms had cancer. They all had their hair. I would will each follicle to hold on. I wanted to pretend I was just like all the other moms, the moms without cancer. How could I do that without my hair? Cancer not only threatened my life, it threatened my identity.
Panicked, I called Bob. He rushed home to a weeping wife. My hair had continued to shed at an alarming rate. I ducked as he reached out to hug me, afraid I’d lose more hair.
“I think I am going to need a wig,” I sobbed.
“Call John,” he said. John Sahag had been my hairdresser for five years. I had found his name in a magazine next to an image of a model sporting one of his signature cuts.
“He’s expensive so I’ll just go to him once,” I had thought back then. “He can cut in the lines and then I’ll go back to my neighborhood salon.” After that first cut, however, I was hooked.
I guess I inherited my hair obsession from my mom. Her life revolved around weekly trips to the salon for a style that resembled a football helmet, followed by a week of sleeping on a satin pillow with her head wrapped in toilet paper and a hairnet. She avoided the wind with the same diligence a vampire avoids daybreak, even a light breeze sent her scurrying from the back deck into the house. My dad used to say her hair ruined 75% of her life. Now consider her hair was so thin her scalp was visible. I was in awe of what the hairdresser accomplished each week with so little to work with. A good hairdresser can do wonders.
My mom’s hair may have been thin, but it was looking like I might be bald within hours. I called John. I explained what was happening. I was so concerned about my hair I blurted the ovarian cancer news to him. There was silence on the other end of the phone. We had become friends over the years and cancer wasn’t the kind of news you delivered as secondary information. John cleared his throat.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. He gave me the address of a wig seller. “I’ll call ahead and have a wig waiting for you. Then come directly to me.”
Bob and I got in the car; drove to New York from Connecticut and parked. We’d have to walk to the wig shop, then over to John’s. It was windy. The weather report was dead on; wind squalls lifted women’s skirts, blew debris into swirling patterns on the street, and set sail to my hair, as if I my head was a dried dandelion and the wind was making a wish. My solution was to hold my hair on my head with my hands and run. Even in New York, people stared at the site of a young woman sprinting down Madison Avenue holding on to her hair as sheets of it joined the litter on the street, but I was too panicked to care. I just held onto my hair and ran.
We arrived at the wig shop where I was seated in front of a mirror. Still winded from running, I took a few deep breaths before I looked up. I barely recognized myself. I now had bald spots with just a scattering of hair. My bangs gone.
I left the shop wearing an uncut wig and looking nearly as bizarre as I did without it. It was brown with blonde highlights, like my own color, but the wig was the same length in the front as it was in the back, falling over my eyes all the way to my chin. I tucked one side behind my ear so I could see.
We headed over to John’s at 49th and Madison. I resisted the urge to hold onto my wig with each sudden gust of wind. I didn’t need to; it stayed in place. I fixed my eyes straight ahead as we walked past Rockefeller Center, Saks Fifth Avenue, the lines of yellow taxis. The smell of roasting chestnuts filled the air. I drifted back into the moment and began to calm down. I was just going to get a haircut, never mind that the hair wasn’t mine. Bob dropped me off at the salon entrance.
I walked in, immediately engulfed by indistinct salon chatter and the roar of hair dryers. I settled into the waiting area with a few other people. A young mom sat next to me, little boy in hand, telling him he just got a great haircut. The little boy, with freshly trimmed floppy blond hair, was about 7, my daughter’s age. “Who cut his hair? He looks so cute.” She looked at me from under an angled blonde fringe, gave a one word response and turned away, clearly not interested in talking to me. Then I remembered the wig and how odd I must have looked, like I was wearing a pound of overcooked spaghetti on my head. I wanted to say, “I’m a mom just like you. Really. I know I look a little strange now, but this isn’t who I really am.”
Sitting in the salon, my hair announced I was a little off. Were people looking at me? I caught a thirty-something woman with thick auburn curls staring. I imagined what she must have been thinking. “What’s with that wig? Oh, she must have cancer.” I didn’t want people to know I was sick, but my hair was betraying me.
I sat, silent, my eyes cast down, until John came to get me, leaving the blonde mom behind. She looked at John as if to say, “Hey, I was next.” John, always fully booked and with a long waiting list, had slipped me in in front of her. I understood her anger, but I secretly gloated. There had to be some payback for losing your hair, almost all of it, in a windstorm, and then being snubbed by another mom because she thought, under my unnatural mop of hair, I must be weird.
I sat in John’s chair. “Not to worry, dear,” he said in his gentle Australian accent. Tall and thin, with jet-black hair brushing his shoulders, he snipped across the front of the wig and my bangs were back, but the process was taking a long time, as if he was cutting one synthetic strand at a time. An hour into the shaping, Blonde Mom came up to John’s chair, this time with her husband in tow as if for reinforcement. By now, I’m looking pretty normal again, my confidence up a few notches.
“I’m sorry, but I need another half hour,” John said. I looked up, made eye contact and flipped her a smile.
The wig was perfect; actually, it looked better than my own hair had, and it would never need trimming, just a weekly dunk in the sink. I would even have consecutive good hair days until my own hair grew back. But I still had to take the wig off during the day for showers and at night to sleep, and as time and more treatments passed, to lie in bed during the day when a turban took its place. I was alarmed each time I looked in the mirror, just a few strands of hair here and there. I could not escape the story my hair told me. I could not escape the story my wig told the world. But I continued to try. Each morning I placed the wig on my head and said out loud, “It’s show time.”