My most secret fear when my mom was diagnosed with cancer was her losing her hair. I say most secret, not worst – the worst fear doesn’t need to be spoken – because hair is nothing. Hair is vanity, is an accessory, is next to nothing. When we’re dealt a deck full of life and death cards, hair is the joker. It’s worth nothing.
The Samson myth works because we can all connect to hair as a visual reminder of vitality. Hair means youth and strength, beauty and power. Painted broadly, old and sick people go bald and with it, wither away into obsolescence. Watching my mom lose her hair as her treatments progressed felt like that. A visual reminder that cancer had taken over and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it.
Ani DiFranco’s “Done Wrong” wails
How could you take almost everything and then come back for the rest.
A much abbreviated list of everything cancer steals as it murders hair follicles:
My Samson buzzed his head and shaved his beard for cancer research at a benefit we held. His friends wielded the clippers in my brewery’s beer garden as our wedding photographer snapped away and we all watched in awe, his skin appearing like a fleshy sunrise from beneath the underbrush.
And I couldn’t help but feel as though I was watching mom’s life get sucked away all over again, but faster and with a different face – a time-warp of cancer ruining our lives, as his mole rat baldness glimmered under the late evening sun.
Let me be clear: I supported his fundraising methods from the beginning. But it’s possible to hold two emotions concurrently, to feel them like two rocks in my mouth, both choking and hard. I can be chest-burstingly proud even as my heart breaks for what cancer has done to us, and the two don’t have to intermingle at all.
Cancer stole a year of our lives, and it will never leave our sides. Once cancer flowers in our bodies, it’s latent there for life. Yes, we can be “cured.” Cancer may not appear in the same spot twice, and it may stay away for years. Decades. But weeds can be pulled too, and they come back. And back. And back. If we all live long enough, cancer will touch us. It, like death, is the great equalizer. Having been leveled by cancer once, our family will live under its shadow for the rest of our days.
In elementary school, a friend of mine was obsessed with Revelation. “The beast will mark us,” she used to whisper. “We’ll know who He owns by what’s written on their skin.” Older now, I think we each undergo our personal Revelation. Maybe cancer is the beast, for us. Maybe baldness is that talisman.
Hair grows, but as it does, cancer whispers in our ears, “I’m here for you,” and its acrid tongue slithers over everything it touches. Hair isn’t the worst side effect of the poison, but it’s the most visual. Baldness reminds us that cancer is slowly poisoning the most vulnerable cells of our bodies, that even hair can’t grow in the medicine-scorched earth we become to eradicate it. To kill cancer, we have to kill ourselves on the most basic level, have to tear down the building blocks of our very bodies like toddlers playing an apocalyptic game. It’s cruel, it’s painful, and it’s an attack at every level from vanity to simple existence. Down, down, down it knocks us, until we’re just piles of dead cells on the pillow at night, clogging the shower drain.
The image of my mom waking up from surgery is forever burned in my memory. I’ve never seen an un-embalmed corpse, but I imagine it looks like her: Blue and gray, shriveled and so, so horribly still. That moment reminded me of our mortality, served me the realization that our parents will die. That someday, the people who are our first protectors, our first confidants, our first friends, will be gone. And we’ll be alone in a very fundamental way, without the roots that first bound us to the earth. That’s what cancer showed me.
That’s what baldness looks like.
So when I say going bald for cancer awareness is traumatic for me, know it’s not all about vanity. It’s not about vanity at all. It’s about seeing corpses when I look at my loved ones, about realizing we’ve all got one foot in the grave. It’s about a family dynamic torn to shreds by a year of uncertainty, of hot, helpless pain. It’s about seeing all of those things in the faces I love most, day after day after agonizing day.
Cancer is hard on the person going through treatment; no one debates that. But it’s also hard on the families who have to watch their loved one being tortured. It’s hard to sit by and know there’s nothing we can do, that even in the best of hands (and mom is in the best of hands), cancer is a cruel and unpredictable beast. There’s no support group for the families of cancer patients. So many times over the past year, a close friend would tell me, “It’s not you going through it. You have to be strong for her. Don’t be selfish. This isn’t your fight.”
But it is. It’s all of our fight. And when I look at him now, I see glittering shattered on his head, his naked face, the battle scars that run like foxholes through our lives, the agony of uncertainty, the horror of watching powerless as the person who’s always protected me is raw, with nothing I can do to stop it. It’s like standing on a battlefield without a gun, as the enemy rushes toward us and we’re rooted to the spot. It’s a flood without a boat. It’s all of these mixed metaphors but worse, deeper, the reason I can’t write about cancer without tending toward hyperbole, because nothing I can say will encapsulate the feeling of seeing death in the lives we take so carelessly for granted.
It’s hard to know our lives will never be the same, now that we’re marked. Baldness looks to me like cancer mocking our pain. As proud as I am of my Samson, I can’t unsee cancer when I see him bald, especially knowing he’s bald because cancer stole our lives.
It’s not about the hair itself. It’s not about vanity, or wedding photos, or what I aesthetically prefer. It’s about life, and death, and knowing the latter is following us, mocking our security with its tainted chemo claws.