My entire life, one of the most common compliments I receive is that I have great hair. Though I’ve had insecurities about my looks—my too-round face or my too-big forehead—my long thick auburn locks have always been a source of pride for me.
Two summers ago I spent five weeks walking across Spain, and toward the end of that long walk, I decided to treat myself with a professional cut. I had always trimmed my own bangs because I knew exactly how I liked them, but this time I wanted to be pampered. Unfortunately, the language barrier resulted in me getting a less-than-ideal cut. Some might shrug and say that it’s just hair; it’ll grow back. Not me. This little mishap had me in tears. I was miserable. I didn’t feel like myself, and I cried—more than once—as a result.
I know I am not alone in my belief that our hair holds so much of our identity. What was created for keeping our scalps warm has become an identity definer that many of us hide beneath.
But this summer something happened in my life that I couldn’t hide from even if I tried.
No one in my family expected the lump to actually be cancerous. My mom has had multiple sclerosis for the past thirteen years. It seemed impossible for her to be diagnosed with two deadly diseases. But then I got a phone call at 1 a.m., and I heard my dad tell me what I never thought I’d hear: “Your mom has breast cancer.”
A torrential downpour of tears soaked my phone. My mom is my best friend, even though we were living on opposite sides of the country, and I knew I wouldn’t be content until I got myself back home to New Mexico to be with her. So I packed up a rental car and departed New York for the thirty-six hour drive across the country.
We Are More Than Our Hair
When you hear the word cancer, hitting so close to those you love, something in you shifts. Your priorities change. When I realized that my mom, the woman I admire most in this world, would be facing the intimidating battle of chemotherapy and everything else that accompanies cancer, I knew I could not let her do it alone.
I’ve always been the “go big or go home” type of person, so as it sank in that my mom was diagnosed with cancer and would lose her hair from chemo, this mentality shifted to “go bald or go home.”
According to our culture, hair says a lot about us. We can add highlights to convey in some way our lighthearted charm. We can go bright-red when we are feeling feisty, or we can add black streaks just to show we have rebellious tendencies. We can put some choppiness in our layers to show that we’re spunky or get extensions if we’re going for a long, luxurious look. We live in a world where our hair speaks volumes (pun intended) about our personality, and often we let our face—the one thing that is entirely unique—take the backseat when it comes to expressing who we are.
During the beginning stages of chemo, I hoped that by some miracle my mom wouldn’t lose her hair. But reality struck the morning that the bathroom floor was covered with clumps of her strawberry-blonde tresses. I could no longer toy around with the idea of shaving my head with her: I had to either do it or not.
With the sound of a steady buzz, my hair—my security blanket—fell to the floor.
Seeing Something Else
So why would I, someone who once cried over the loss of two to three inches, voluntarily rid myself of twenty-four inches, thus leaving me with nothing?
To my surprise, this time I didn’t cry.
I’ll admit that initially I was shocked, as I had never seen myself so . . . naked. I have always been the biggest critic of my face. It’s too round, my forehead flirts with the idea of being a “fivehead,” and God forbid I get a pimple because I won’t even want to look in a mirror. I didn’t think I had self-esteem issues because I always liked my hair. But once that was gone, I saw my face for what it truly was.
With each glance in the mirror a familiarity grew, and I started realizing that the girl underneath all the auburn hair was still me. In light of everything else, it was only hair. Not my identity, not something irreplaceable—just hair.
I was certain that being bald would make me very insecure, but it has actually brought out a confidence in me that I never knew I had.
I’ve grown to realize that loving myself begins with a healthy liking of myself—to look in the mirror and be grateful that I have eyes to see out of, lips to speak with, and a nose that works just fine. It’s natural to get caught up with looks and dressing ourselves up (which is by no means a bad thing!), but our body parts serve a purpose far more important than our appearance. I may like my blue eyes, but when I focus on the fact that I get to see out of them, I like them even more. I may like my long hair, but I can live without its purpose of keeping me warm for now and take joy in the fact that removing it has actually served a greater purpose. It has brought me closer in solidarity to my mom during this time and has provided some locks to a child who doesn’t have the luxury of growing her hair out.
Life Is So Much More
When we place our identity on something so conditional as hair, we fail to grasp the depth of who we truly are.
Sometimes it takes disease knocking at the door of a loved one for us to realize that the moments we have in this life are fleeting. Years from now I will not look back on my life and be satisfied by saying, “Wow, I received a lot of compliments on my hair in this life.” No. I will remember the people who have impacted my life and the savored moments with them. And I will only be content if I know that I have loved as much as I could.
Hair may always be a factor of how we present ourselves, but I couldn’t be more certain that my mom’s lack of hair right now echoes the strength and courage she has to brave this battle. I can only hope that my own lack of hair boldly broadcasts the love and support I have for her. Because what it all comes down to is: Hair grows back. And my mom’s cancer better not.