She was wearing a baseball cap when I came home. “I did it,” she said. “Today Mrs. K came over and shaved my head.” The moment’s rawness was palpable; she stood on the other side of a chasm with no way back – cancer was pushing her further than she had ever wanted.
Her hair had been falling out for weeks. She’d wake up in the morning to find long blonde strands on her pillow. She’d bend over the sink to spit out her toothpaste and the hair would gently float down, collecting in haphazard piles in the water before it swirl down the drain. She became like a golden retriever whose coat hasn’t been brushed in weeks – one touch of that hair to fabric, and the hair would cling to the fabric instead.
My mother had always had lush blonde curls, which sprung into spirals in the summer and relaxed into beachy waves in the winter. She grew up in the 1980s, an era that her voluminous hair was built for. I have the same hair as she, though unfortunately, I grew up in the age of flat irons and flawlessly straight hair. My flat ironed hair looks less like a silky smooth Rachel Green cut, and more like it belongs to a cocker spaniel. Our hair definitely belonged in the 80s.
In early 90s, my mom chopped her long curls to adapted to changing styles. She idolized Princess Di by adopting a sassy blonde bob, and soon after, a daringly short layered style. My mother used her hair as a form of expression. It was iconic for her.
How painful it was to watch chemo attack that integral part of her – the last part of her that looked healthy. When her skin appeared burned from radiation and her muscles melted into atonic strings of tissues and her eyes sunk further into her gaunt head, at least her hair had been the same – the anchor through a diagnosis. Her body began to change before she was ready, and gradually her hair began to change too.
So instead of participating in the slow parade of watching the hair fall out, she did something bold – she chose to shave her head. She made the decision to change actively, before her life changed passively around her. It is the difference between swimming parallel with the riptides and being submerged by the undertow.
Sometimes life assigns us this difficult choice: Do you want to change or do you want to let change happen to you? Active or passive?
My mother chose active change, to choose to remove her hair instead of watching it slowly fall away from her while she sat on the sidelines. She chose to take an unfortunate circumstance and turn it into a choice. And when she did, among the mix of anger, sadness, unfairness, worry, anxiety, defeat, she felt something new – empowered.
Choose is an empowering word. Choose connotes freedom. My mother never wanted to be bald, but she soon adopted her baldness into a source of pride. It became the sign of a warrior, of someone who acknowledged the suffering around them, of someone who was choosing to fight.