This first appeared in The Chicago Tribune on May 14, 2003, under the name of “Daughter’s illness becomes mom’s growth experience”
“Face it, you are not a hair person,” my sister once said to me. I had just been complaining about the glob of hair I’d found clogging her shower drain. She has three girls, all of whom have preposterously long hair. She’s right, I am not a hair person and I keep my own hair short and sassy to minimize the nuisance of caring for it. In fact, I have always thought hair was just a bit icky, getting in food and clogging drains.
I have not had hair past my chin since the 8th grade when I had a shag, complete with bangs that I was supposed to “train” according to my friends. But I couldn’t train them; they were recalcitrant and instead of looking foxy, like Laurie Partridge with soft, feathered hair at my temples, I looked goofy like Emily Elizabeth from the Clifford books. I got a pixie cut and never looked back.
So it comes as a surprise to me that lately I’ve become obsessed with hair. I think about it, worry about it, talk about it and recently I even dreamed about it. I dreamed that I had long flowing hair down to my shoulders, but every time I combed it big chunks of it fell off.
I don’t need Dr. Freud to explain that dream to me. It’s because Lilly, my 4-year-old baby, is losing her hair. Some days when she comes down to breakfast and the morning sun slants into the kitchen, it illuminates the hundreds of strands lying in piles around her shoulders like a stole. When I see that, I rise quickly from my cup of coffee and give her a big hug. Then I go get the wide roll of masking tape and tear off a foot-long piece. The tape, which I press to her shoulders, quickly fills with loose hairs. Then I get a brush and I work on the hair until the brush is full and I’m convinced there isn’t much left to come out right then. I go through this morning ritual because I’d rather have some control over it than find it floating around the house and making nests in the corners to mock me.
It’s not all gone yet. But when she’s hatless, and the breeze moves it away from her face and reveals the huge bare patches and the few wisps that remain around her face, she looks nearly bald and that, along with her pale, pale face and her nearly white lips, makes her look as sad and pathetic as, well, as a kid with cancer.
It’s taken a long time to fall out. It didn’t start in earnest until about the sixth week of chemo. We were at Walker Brothers having pancakes, one of the few foods she has an appetite for, when I noticed a stray hair hanging down. I reached across the table to pull it out. But when I did, I was horrified to find an entire clump of hair in my hand. I had visions of all her hair falling out right there into her plate of syrup. I rushed her through the rest of her meal and drove to my friend Martha’s house.
“It’s just her hair and it will come back. Her beauty shines through with or without her hair,” she said reassuringly as I cried briefly. Of course I know that. Hair is definitely the least of our worries with Lilly. I remember asking the doctor that first day, the series of questions he must be so used to. What is the prognosis? Will she need chemo after the surgery? Will it make her sick? Will it make her hair fall out? The last question seemed so trivial after the others. But still a mommy never expects to have to watch her 4-year-old lose her hair.
I have a box labeled “Danger! Toxic chemotherapy drugs enclosed” in the back of the refrigerator next to the pickles. It’s there for the days when we have home chemo. I had to cross off “gymnastics” on the calendar and write in “chemo”. And the other day I walked into the playroom and heard Lilly tell her playdate that she had “cansuh”. So you’d think the hair thing would be the least of the changes I’m getting used to lately. But right now it’s bothering me. I think because it’s such an outward and visible sign that my baby is indeed a cancer patient.
I used to see bald kids and wonder vaguely if they had cancer or something else. Now I know. It’s most likely cancer. There are very few other explanations for it. There are a lot of things I know now that I never wanted to know. I know that the oncology department is on the fourth floor of Children’s Memorial. I know that pediatric cancer is on the rise but thankfully, so are the cure rates. Pediatric cancer is not the death sentence it was when we were kids. Thank God. I know that if you have to have cancer, the kind Lilly has (a Wilms Tumor) is the kind you want. I know that kids who are bald from chemo are just regular kids stricken with this at random. I know that the hair falls out because the chemo kills all fast-growing cells and hair is a fast-growing cell too.
I know all this and I know this too: I have been wrong about hair all along. It isn’t a nuisance or an inconvenience. It is something really quite wonderful. Hair is a beautiful soft frame for a tiny face. It’s a sign of health and normalcy, two of the most valuable blessings anyone can have. I know I wont’ take it for granted when Lilly’s hair grows back and I’ll never resent having to wash it or comb it again.
When this ordeal is all over, we are taking a tropical family vacation to celebrate. Yesterday I asked Lilly how long she wanted to grow her hair out when it comes back and she said, “All the way to Hawaii.” I’m thinking about joining her in celebration. I might just grow my hair out all the way to Hawaii too.
By Judy Zimmerman
Lilly is four years cancer-free and did grow her hair out--not quite to Hawaii--but well past her shoulders. I’ve grown mine over my ears, which is long for me. I’m happy to say that I am back to complaining when I have to comb the tangles out of her hair—a lovely sign that our lives have indeed returned to normal.