Preface: Three weeks ago, my six-year-old grandson gave his sister, age 4, a haircut, “artfully” executed with his Sesame Street scissors. My daughter was sleeping a little later than usual on a Sunday morning, and as far as she knew, her dynamic duo were playing quietly together.
She awakened to find Emily’s long blonde locks wound around the brushes of the carpet sweeper—a careful clean-up job undertaken by her brother. She greeted her mother with a huge smile and a rather uneven pixie cut, while Nathan held back, aware, I think, that his hairdressing skills weren’t quite up to snuff. My daughter handled it with more grace than I might have. When she suggested to Emily that perhaps they could go to the local hairdresser to “straighten it up a bit,” my granddaughter was adamant. “NO Mommy! My brother gave me a haircut. I be cute now!”
And so she was—with her long hair or without it. Claire accepted her wishes. “She’s happy,” she said, “so I’m happy.” (Nathan did, however, lose possession of his very own scissors).
This week’s post about having—and losing—hair was previously published March 12, 2012.
A dozen women, all living with cancer, were seated around the table with their notebooks open. I had given them a short “warm-up” writing exercise, something I do at the beginning of a workshop.
“What’s on your mind this morning? What thoughts or concerns have accompanied you to our group?” Write for five minutes; just keep the pen moving. Don’t worry about what gets written.” Notebooks opened and within seconds, only the sound of pens, moving across the pages, could be heard. “Who wants to read first?” I asked. One woman, her head covered with a brightly colored scarf, raised her hand.
“I’m angry about losing my hair,” she said as she began to read what she’d written. “My hair has been my signature, long and full…” She looked up from her notebook and reached for a tissue. Her eyes were red and teary. Several of the women nodded sympathetically. Two of them also wore headscarves or wigs, two others had removed theirs in favor of short, newly grown heads of hair, grateful chemotherapy was behind them. I recalled my embarrassment when twice, as a teenager, I sported a bald head after neurosurgery, covering it with scarves when I returned to school and praying no one would laugh at me. I felt unattractive and vulnerable to taunts or teasing, all from losing my hair.
Hair loss is one of the unfortunate side effects of chemotherapy that the majority of cancer patients experience. While some of the newer, more targeted chemotherapy drugs don’t result in hair loss, the majority do. Thankfully, the loss is temporary, and there’s solace in knowing that the drugs are helping you fight your illness, hair loss can have a powerful effect on our emotions.
Hair, whether male or female, losing it or not, affects the vast majority of us. Consider how much time and money is spent in support of your hair, whether cut, colored, shampooed or styled, or waxed, tweezed and shaved. Remember the rock musical “Hair?” The styles of the sixties? Long, full, permed, and wild, our hair was evidence of youthful freedom and rebellion.
Gimme’ a head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
(Lyrics from Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, by James Rado & Gerome Ragni)
Hair and hair styles are a distinctive feature of history. Think of the powdered wigs from Mozart’s day, or the fashionable pony tails the men of Jefferson’s era. Our stories of hair existed long before that sixties musical. Remember the biblical story of Samson? His power lay in his hair, giving him the strength to rip apart a lion or destroy temples with his bare hands. He vowed never to never to have it cut. His downfall came, of course, when he fell in love with Delilah. Her powers of seduction gradually wore him down, and he revealed his secret: if a razor were used on his head, he would lose his strength. Delilah waited until Samson slept and ordered the servants to cut his hair. When he awakened, his magnificent locks were gone, and with them, his strength, and he could no longer resist his captors.
Hair loss, whether the result of chemotherapy or genetic inheritance, affects men and women alike. My husband’s hair has been thinning for years, and for a long time, he obsessed over his widening bald spot, yet resisting Rogaine treatments or comb-overs. More than once, however, he returned from his hairdresser with a “new look,” an effort to mask the relentless disappearance of his hair. Those attempts didn’t last—the fits of laughter induced by his new “do” from our daughters and me were enough to send him back to the barber for a less “hip” cut. Thankfully, the bare head has become fashionable for men, and he’s embraced his shorn head with relief.
Gregory Corso, a Beat poet in the era of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, creates a kaleidoscope of images about how we treat and worry about our hair in his poem, simply entitled, “Hair.”
Come back, hair, come back!
I want to grow sideburns!
I want to wash you, comb you, sun you, love you!
As I ran from you wild before —
I thought surely this nineteen hundred and fifty-nine of now
that I need no longer bite my fingernails
but have handsome gray hair
to show how profoundly nervous I am.
(From Minefield: New and Selected Poems)
The young woman from my writing group who mourned the loss of her hair that one morning has since recovered from her treatments. Her hair has grown back, long and full. She’s grateful, not just for her hair, but for enjoying a life without cancer. In thinking about her, I remember a beautiful poem, “Farewell to Hair,” by Terradon. She watches as her hair floats away in the breeze, but she finds solace—even gratitude—as she imagines how it might comfort other living creatures:
I stood outside on a windy day,
and ran my fingers through my hair.
Long strands of silky threads,
blew across the lawn…
I imagined a nest,
lined with my mane.
Woven by a mama bird…
Now on the wintry nights,
when my head is cold,
I pull my wool cap over my ears and smile.
As I dream of baby birds,
sleeping in my hair.
(In The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, Karin Miller, Ed.)
Hair. It’s a topic that invites an unending supply of opinions, discussion, stories or poems. This week, why not write about hair: having it, losing it, styling it, coloring, cutting or even a time you experienced a hair style disaster. Open up your old high school yearbook and take a look at that young person whose face in framed in a hair style that was popular at the time. Chances are if you’re like most of us, you have a story or two to tell about hair.