Pre-ja-vu #2: Several years ago I started a hair farm. The thing about my hair, besides its unruliness, is that it’s always been thick and fast-growing, like a cover crop. It’s peasant hair, which I used to plait into a braid as thick as my wrist. So one day I heard about an organization called “Locks for Love.” I heard that a ten-inch ponytail was the appropriate length for a gift of hair to Locks for Love so they could use it to make wigs for cancer patients. Hell, for me, a ten-inch harvest still left me with plenty. So one day I shampooed my hair and my friend Tara measured ten inches from the bottom and she tied it off with a hair tie, then braided the hank and tied that off too, and then chop chop went the scissors and there was my braid in her hand. And still my hair was below my shoulders. I swished it around, enjoying the new lightness of being, then sent the braid off in a Ziploc. And a year later, I did it again. And about 18 months after that, again.
A year before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I flew to Latvia to live at a writers' residency. That's right, my hair went back to its roots. Only it turned out I didn't have Latvian hair. Not by today's standards. Latvian hair today is blonde, yes, but also red, blue, black, purple, orange, brass, platinum, strawberry, auburn, copper. What Latvian hair is not is gray. Unless you're a peasant. Or a bumpkin. Or a very old woman. When I got to Latvia, I was between henna-ings, and some gray was streaking through. My Latvian women friends pestered me until I relented and let them dye it. They made it a party, with wine, cheese, platters of meat, cookies, and some boxes of serious product. This stuff smelled like the Love Canal. (And yes, I asked my oncologist, but he said no, Latvian hair dye did not give me breast cancer. Nor did chewing too much sugarless gum). In Latvian drugstores, an entire wall is devoted to hair dye. There are almost as many boxes of hair dye in a Latvian drugstore as there are drugs. It's an institution. My Latvian friends loved my orange-ish hair and told me it made me look younger, so that made me happy.
So when I headed for Cape Cod two years ago for a routine family visit, the orange was growing out. My hair was half brown, half orange. My two-toned head and I went on a bit of a road trip that spring, first visiting my stepson Lars at Kenyon College, hanging out with his swimmer pals in their dorm suite. This is me and my hair fake-playing beer pong with Lars' girl friend. This two-toned goof by this point had some serious worry about a lump she'd found in her right breast, but it doesn't show on her face in this photo. She is trying to maintain a measure of denial. But if you listened to the mix tape she played incessantly on that road trip, a mix tape full of rather dark and portentous songs by people like Mary Gauthier, you would recognize it as a song track to her near future.
Next stop on the road trip: Toronto, and my Tante Valija's house. Here I am with my father's sister, a woman who became very important to me in the months to follow. You see, over three years ago, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, went through surgery, chemo and radiation, and is, at this writing, doing fine. During my chemo ordeal, I talked often to Tante Valija. She gave me all kinds of advice, including directions for cooking chicken livers to up my red blood count. I practiced a whole Latvian vocabulary related to cancer with this woman, who escaped Latvia during the Russian invasion of WWII, walking and hiding and stealing food and then spent five years in a DP camp. In Canada, she learned English, cleaned houses, and raised two kids and four grandkids in that house in Toronto, and the families live there still, occupying three floors. She survived an earlier cancer in her 70's only to be diagnosed in her 80's with pancreatic. When I visited, three years post, she taught me to make kimenu maizites (caraway rolls) and her famous shrimp noodle salad. She is my hero. And not only because she has a smokin' (but non-Latvian) head of post-chemo hair.
And then came cancer. To me.
They tell you quite exactly when your hair will fall out, how many days after your first infusion of Adriamycin/Cytoxan cocktail, affectionately known as A/C. The A part affectionately known as the Red Devil. (They also tell you not to worry; your hair will grow back. But more on that half-lie later). They tell you so you can be prepared. They tell you it's traumatic to find wads of hair on your pillow one morning. Or clumps in the shower drain. They tell you so you can take preemptive measures, which I did. I didn't want to relive the memories of those bald islands of seventh grade. I went to a place called Hairology on Cape Cod and had my Latvian dye job cut off, a nice thick ten inch braid, which I again sent to Locks for Love, hoping they could do something with the weird color scheme. Only this time, I included a note, explaining why the gift of my hair was particularly significant. This is me post-surgery, post Hairology, in my sister's back yard. I like this cut; I look pretty spunky, so I don't think I've had chemo yet. Chemo smacked-down that spunk. Before I went to Hairology, my niece Phoebe gave me some celebrity photos she'd cut out of In Style magazines to take with me to the salon. Can you detect my inner Halle Berry beaming out of this photo? I'm afraid Halle was too wimpy to withstand chemotherapy. She high-tailed it back to Hollywood after the first round. Note subtly arranged scarf hiding still-healing flat right chest. And terrible extra-loose shirt bought special before surgery. (I got rid of every last piece of cancer clothing after I left Cape Cod). Not sure what to make of the apple.
Somewhere around my second infusion, it began to thin. And so my sister and I took preemptive measures again. No chopper this time; Mara wielded the buzzer.
I look like my brothers when they were little and my mother kept them in brush cuts. So it's a little Latvian in its own special way. But it didn't last long, this hip style. About a week later, Craig and I took a road trip to Darien, CT, to visit my oldest brother Andy. Sitting at his dining room table with his family, my head began to itch like fury, so I went out on the stoop, bent over, and started scratching my head, and my hair just rained down. So without a second thought, Andy got an electric hair shaver thingie and a towel. And right there in that suburban neighborhood on the front step, he shaved the rest of my hair off, down to stubble, which Craig helped me shave to bare skin in the shower later. I wasn't alone in my new style, though, because my 23 year-old sweetheart of a rockin' nephew had shaved his own head in solidarity with me about a week before. So we were two bald Latvians in Darien. Here is Andy shaving it off:
I'll end Chapter 2 with this photo, in which I appear to be getting ready to enter a Buddhist monastery. Which is not really all that far from the truth.