It happened like a reverse miracle beneath the glinting scissors.
The moment Barbara whisked the snippets from my neck—after my second trim since my hair returned—I sat gazing into the salon mirror, devastated: it was back. A straight bob sat before me, dousing like a bucket of water the sun-dipped tousled mop top I had, just moments before, been reveling in. My curls had died. Just like that. We killed them.
I had mollycoddled them along for months. Spritzed them with wine vinegar in the shower. Scrunched them with a towel like delicate hand-washables. Did not imperil with blow dryer, comb or brush—crude implements meant only for the hardy-haired. I just let them be, incubating in the open air, too-good-to-be-true, too precious for styling, my glorious blaze of kink, my Medusa’s head of spiraling highlights.
And now, all because I scheduled a second haircut, they were gone. Though I know little of the mysteries of hair growth, what I surmise is this: the curls were old growth, the straight hair was new, and the new had been nudging out the old, quite surreptitiously, around my very nose. Barbara’s scissors finished the job. Straight hair was the victor, all but shaking its lank trophy in the air.
Hair runs deep—deeper than we think. It gets inside us, seeps into our mental picture. And breast cancer is a saga of hair. When you’re stripped of it from head-to-toe, your inner tendrils weep. Nakedness is a kind of grief. After treatment, you stop crying a fraction of an inch at a time.
That saga had come full circle. Twenty-one months later, it heralded new grief—the grief of limpness, the sad truth of DNA—but also demanded rescue: of earnest hats and fleeting selves from the blizzard of forgetting.
There was the orange, itchy, bucket hat. Much too warm for indoors, a bad idea accentuated with pendulous earrings, it marked my debut at school. I greeted my first student while bald in it, a young man I had advised before, who froze at the sight of me, lowering himself wide-eyed into the chair by my desk. As I rambled on, his face clouded with a look that said, “If you’re going to be like that, I don’t think I can be around you anymore.” He never did come back.
On headscarf days, scalped and knotted, I was not myself at all, I was She With Cloth Rustling in Her Ears. Maddened by the rustling but helpless before it, I felt She do her job, advising the usual trickle of English majors, jaw setting off more rustling, scarf hiking up, pleading with her bald eyes for a sort of bald understanding.
There was the green hat that almost took wing. A safari-style spring-fling, so to speak. Dangerous as a Frisbee. Had my swift and wary hand not clamped down on it, mischievous May winds would have flung it from my head in jubilant, Mary Tyler Moore abandon. Even now I shudder to think of it: a manikin in hot pursuit, along busy Route 9 in Amherst.
When I at last began sprouting curls, in spite of my stubborn insistence that I would not, like everyone else, be anointed with them—my usual hair was just too straight, too bad, not deserving of curls—I am ashamed to say that I did not love them at first. They clung to my head like a short-haired perm. I hated them because they were babies.
But soon enough I was wild and woolly, coils spilling from my head, a riotous hair ballet I didn’t dream of touching in my new, live-and-let-live, hippiedom. It was summer, I was feeling free, and the world could just keep its laws off me.
Until a friend whose taste I respected said, “You look great and all, but have you considered a trim with highlights?” He was wincing. So I booked an appointment at a hair salon, got cleaned up, and thus were born the finger waves of my dreams, not counting that damnable Patty Duke up-flip.
Now that I’m back in the valley of the fine and straight, where my Lutheran foremothers greet me with smug censure—who did I think I was, anyway, someone special, a movie star?—I hereby give back all the compliments I received on my former hair. The foremothers nod with approval. It’s the right thing to do. I couldn’t uphold my end of the compliment.
Who did I think I was? Chastened and straightened, I embrace my own truth: Cancer didn’t improve me, it just gave me crash menopause. When well-wishers ask, “How are you?,” a uterus hovers between us, shuddering and palpable, on the boundaries of civility. It fills my mouth, pressing for release, a purseful of female grievances. I entered cancer at forty-nine, and emerged, ten months later, at seventy. “Crash” is an apt word for what chemotherapy and tamoxifen, the estrogen-suppressing pill I take daily, have shattered.
As I sit here doused in the bracing truth of me—deglamourized, unsexed, edgy—I’m reminded that we are all bald underneath, we all hang on to our hats, watchful against the breeze. Perhaps, in the search for comfort, we grasp at odd bits: old songs, lines from poems, nonsense claiming us from our ancient pasts. It may be these words from Mother Goose:
There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead
When she was good, she was very, very good
And when she was bad she was horrid.
At four or five, listening to my mother read this poem, I penetrated the heart of it. For a moment, in the generous reprieve of a nursery rhyme, I was that little girl, perfect as I was, free to be horrid, adored unconditionally.