A broody afternoon, gusty, intermittent rain, low gray sky, intermittent sun, constant snowmelt, house too hot from woodstove, intermittent motivation to clean a bathroom or cook beans or page through old photo albums, Sunday doldrums, blue-toned. So I'm starting what I've thought about doing for awhile, writing the biography of my hair's breast cancer journey. Breast cancer people talk a lot about hair. I even found this quote in a New York Times article; I don't know what to think about it. “Before cancer, I looked like the girl next door, like Jennifer Aniston. Now I feel like I have Annie Lennox inside me. It empowered me to bring out that aspect of my personality." She's talking about her hair cut. Aside from trying to wrap my head around this Jennifer Anniston plain old girl next door thing, maybe I'm wanting to speak up to this notion of empowerment via hairstyle, talking back to it. I mean, we're talking about cancer here. Versus the will to live.
There's an Adrienne Rich poem that says "the sea is not a question of power." I'm still trying to figure out what she means by that, though I know she's right. I think she's talking about the kind of power that holds sway over us here above the sea, like the power of hair, for example, or the power of youth or the power of skinny or the power of certain brands of boots and jeans or the power of a father or a priest. The sea is power of another order, as is cancer and the life force. But we don't live day-to-day with that perspective; we live by the lesser powers. And that's why when, during the first chemo weeks, when your hair falls out in clumps on your pillow or in the shower and leaves you bald, bald like maybe you've never been, even at birth, it's a big thing. And when it grows back white and all curly and you look in the mirror and don't recognize that suddenly older, paler, thinner person, it's a big thing. But it's not a question of power; hair just grows and grows of its own accord and reclaims your head and you do what you must. Dye it or crop it or grow it or mousse it or peroxide it or henna it or kink it or straighten it or perm it or streak it but I don't know about any of it being empowering. Or who this curly-headed person is inside me, hey, maybe Meg Ryan ... or Phyllis Diller. When before I was merely Janis Joplin (you'd have to have seen me in a windstorm). You tell me.
But I'll start a little closer to the beginning.
I've almost always been a long-haired gal, well, since I had a choice in matters. As a child, pre-breasts, my hair was shaped by my mother to a bowl. We called my mother's hairdresser "the chopper," but I think my mother was responsible for this early chopped cut:
Finally, in my tweenish years, my mother let me grow it, and down my back the tresses crept, but then when I was thirteen, a bizarre cancer pre-ja-vu: my hair began falling out, in patches, alopecia the dermatologist called it, probably stress-induced. On my head formed big, palm-sized bald islands of scalp I tried to hide with comb-overs. My little sister, then as later, was my protector, my Athena down the gauntlet high school hallways, fending off the taunts (the comb-overs, as they are wont to do, only called attention to what they were trying to hide, aided by the fact that the steroid ointment I smeared on the bald patches every morning greased the strands; nice). I sought shelter, also, with the school nurse, who hid me in the sick-room and suggested counseling. I didn't know about headscarves back then, or cute hats. No, in desperation, after a third of my hair was off my head and tangling in the shag carpet strands, and clogging up the vacuum cleaner and sink drains and hairbrushes, my parents drove me to Buffalo, to Chippewa Street, where they heard you could buy wigs. Lots of wig shops there, catering to the hookers who plied their trade on Chippewa in those days, even I knew it, at thirteen. My mother and father and me in dim little wig shops with multi-toned head-i-cans by the hundreds on shelves and me refusing to look in the mirror as wig after wig was yanked into place, me just saying no, no, no, no. And tears. And finally leaving the last shop with a plastic bag containing a pelt of hair they called, ironically, "a fall." My parents bought it in desperation. A hair piece, long, blond, somehow I was supposed to bobby pin in place to cover the biggest bald islands. I threw it at the wall. I never used it. I comb-over-ed my way through seventh grade. Once, years later, home from college, I found the fall in the dining room closet, and I practically screamed, as though it were a dead animal. I kind of wish I still had it now so I could add it to my museum of head coverings.
My sister was there with me again the day when we fought and I banged the top of my head on the bed frame (somehow we were fighting under the bed, I don't know how or why or maybe I was hiding from my little sister who was pretty damn wiry and tough and could kick my ass if she wanted). When I emerged, she freaked out to see a bruise already forming on the biggest bald island, and we called my mother, who determined it was hair at last growing back, and we three held each other and laughed and cried like we'd just made landfall after surviving a shipwreck. And when my hair started to tuft out and look a new version of weird, like strange dark hummocks of turf amid rivers of long blonder hair, my mother offered to take me to Irene, "the chopper," but I said no way. I insisted on a hip (for Silver Creek, NY) new, catering-to-teenagers salon in town, and because I had some pull having almost gone bald, having had numerous hysterical episodes, she took me there, and the hairdresser looked shocked, appalled, and asked my mother, "Who did this to her hair???" Accusingly, as though my mother were a child abuser.
So then it was long hair through the hippie years, with a brief feminist protest when I had a field assistant cut off my long hair with a pair of Swiss army knife scissors, leaving a long rat tail. A boy-cut I returned to town with at the end of the field season and heard over and over men friends exclaim in actual horror and grief, "What did you do to your hair???? Why???" And I smugly laughed and said, "I'll give it to you, I saved it, so you can stick it to your own head since you like it so much." Well, I said that in my fantasies; I was never that spunky or brave. And after a year or so I let it grow back, and that's how it stayed, as the gray strands appeared, and I experimented with henna, braids, and barrettes. Here I am at 44 maybe a month before getting diagnosed with breast cancer just about two years ago:
I think I look pretty smug in this picture, don't you? I look at it now and think, "Eva, you have cancer in this picture; wake up!" But there I am smiling like a goon.
An now it's time to get back to my pot of beans ... boiling away in that same kitchen, with a lot of the same magnets and pictures on the fridge, and the same orchid in the window, and the same dish rack, and the same bowls high above the cupboards, and the same blue agate necklace dangling from my neck. But a different me with a different story and a different do. I'll leave the rest of it for Chapter 2 ... In which my hair will even be involved in a game of beer pong.