You teased your mom for years about her penchant for changing hairstyles. Her coiffure evolution is well documented in photo albums: The year of the bad perm, when she resembled the family poodle. The year of the boxy helmet. The year of short bangs and long, frizzy curls—you’re not even sure if that style has a name.
“I can’t believe I wore it like that,” she’d say, or “What was I thinking?”
Your mom’s hair color changed, too. She started experimenting in her 20s, when gray roots began imposing on the original brownish-black. When she dyed her hair at home, the smell assaulted your nose, and the sludge that oozed from the bottle seemed unconnected to the voluptuous hair displayed on the box. She eventually started dying it at a salon.
She is 57 now, and her hair has fallen out. She dislikes the scratchy wig that came in the mail. As her longtime shopping partner, you agree to help her find her next look.
You are astounded to discover that wigs are a big industry. You think of wigs as so 1970s—that’s when your mom’s mom wore one, for convenience. It creeped you out to see it on a stand in her bedroom. You were glad when Gram ditched it for her natural hair, a soft white that set off her cornflower blue eyes.
Your mom’s eyes are hazel, and her normally fair, Irish skin now has a yellow tinge to it.
You drive her to a shop known for its wide selection. In the car, you make small talk about how you are both feeling. You, with a baby in your uterus, and she, with her ovaries recently removed. You are both experiencing nausea, mingled with excitement about the upcoming birth of your first child—her first grandchild. The shared fear remains unspoken.
You think: Will she live to meet this baby?
Inside the shop, you are bombarded with shelves of wigs in all colors, lengths and styles. Fortunately, the saleswoman is experienced and offers suggestions.
You follow your mom into the dressing room, and your heart beats faster. You are trying to pretend that you are on just another mother-daughter shopping trip. But the stakes have never been this high. Prom? Hah. Wedding dress? Who cares. This is about life with a capital L. You are terrified.
You avert your eyes as she removes her scratchy wig. Then you look in the mirror and come face to face with what you had hoped to avoid: seeing your mom’s bald head, with its few stray wisps of hair so thin, they look like thread. Your stomach drops. You hold your breath.
You think: She looks like someone who could die.
Her warm eyes, the constant in all those family photos, gaze back at you. You gulp and say, “You have a nice-shaped head. Maybe you don’t need a wig at all.”
She laughs. You breathe. It is OK. It is not the mother-daughter shopping trip you wanted to have, but for now, you are together.
She chooses a wig that looks great on her. This will be the style of 1996 — she will wear it to your baby shower, and to the hospital when your daughter is born, and she will threaten to burn it when her own hair grows back.
Months later, she will hold her granddaughter in her arms and declare that she will keep the silver-gray, post-chemo hair that has emerged from her head, now that she is Nana.
You will smile and think: Let’s see what the next year brings.