My hair fell out (again) on the weekend. My scalp ached and itched all the way through Friday night and then on Saturday morning, I was sitting on the rug with A (my one year old) when I scratched my head and a handful of hair came out. And I sighed, at the sensation of beginning again.
Last year, the first time this happened to me, my hair came out gradually. I'd feel my scalp begin to itch and sting and I'd follow my little routine of crouching under the plum trees, running my hands through my hair and shaking the hairs off my hands and onto the compost heap (where they very annoyingly blew around the garden and took about a year to break down). There was one intense morning, pre-dawn and early on in the process, when I lost perhaps 60% of my hair in one go. I squatted in my special spot wringing handfuls of hair out of the mass, shedding hair and tears, letting it wash through me like strange cleansing in the cool air. It was beautiful. At least, it was until I had to return to the everyday world and see the pale, lumpy, scraggly remains in the mirror, such a mismatched to the smooth hair that slipped out shining in the dawn light. And I was really taken with the way the process ordered the hairs so very precisely by colour. I lost the darkest hairs first, and I was left with the purest blonde ones at the very end. I had no idea of the range of tones in my own hair, and I definitely could only sort them that well if I could scan them into photoshop and select them with the magic wand tool. My (pretty baseless) theory is that the darkest hairs were the newest, most actively growing ones, and were most affected by chemo because they had the greatest rate of cell division. And the blonder hairs were the oldest, most sun bleached and most slowly growing. There was that magic of nature and numbers in how orderly the process was. The rate of cell division made visible, the bell curve of probabilty of a cell dividing at a particular moment expressed through tonal variation. Gorgeous.
But this time, all the hair was dark and new, and most of it fell out in ten minutes. So the mathematical glory I was so entranced with last year just resulted in me looking like this:
Even A looked at me a bit quizzically (as though she were grossed out but hiding it) and she was only one year and one day old. Last year, N (my three year old) was really quite deeply shocked by the change. She felt I was less female, less motherly, and she was really shaken up and destabilised. She could not be in the same room as my baldness - for months - and she would howl if my head was uncovered for a moment. So this time I commisserated with her immediately. I asked her advice and let her work out how to manage the situation (headscarves not wigs. Compulsory for me in public places, optional for her anytime she feels like it, just the same as last time. N, by the way, is meltingly beautiful in a floral peasant scarf with her curls spilling out). We watched videos in my bed through the afternoon, and talked intermittently about what a pity it was about my hair, but how it didn't matter, really. I shaved off the clumps first chance I got. So sitting here typing, I look like this:
Anyway, the bad bit comes when I lose my eyebrows and eyelashes, and I'm a few weeks ahead of that particular wave. Even though they seem smaller, the loss of eyebrows and eyelashes is much more dehumanising than losing head hair. And naturally, losing body hair is sort of convenient. No stress there.
I can forget what I look like most of the time, but of course I have to look in the mirror and live without the (false) reassurance of a solid, continuous, 'normal' identity. But I think that it's good to minimise that kind of superficial self-reassurance in any case, so I try to take any disappointment I have in my own appearance as fuel for a secular meditation practice. The more burdensome part is that I have to endure more of other people's judgements again. The hair loss - even if I cover it up, which i always do in public - is an invitation for people other than close friends to talk to me about cancer and to say insensitive things. Just like the hair was sorted for me by chemo, it's kind of magical to see how my friends and family just so consistently say sensitive, loving things about my situation and strangers out in the world say some shockers. On bad days I fantasise at near-gratuitous length about writing revenge-themed blog posts entitled: "What not to say." I'd report on the sales reps and the waiting room people who take it upon themselves to compare me to their repertoire of cancer stories, or (worse) to interpret my situation straight to my face. Nothing like intrusiveness to make me seeth.
So... the burden of baldness again. I don't wear wigs because, to my mind at least, their unconvincing pretensions towards normalcy are uglier than just living with this reality. I shouldn't say that, because I know that some people find shelter there, but I can always spot a wig. My own attempts to manage the situation pretty well centre on headscarves. It's an attempt towards creativity and honesty, but always imperfect too. Nice that I can share it with N.