Hair Story from Maja

5th April 2009 For someone whose long, thick curly hair has been a part of her identity for two decades, knowing that I was about to lose it was a big thing. A few weeks before chemo started I went to talk to a wig specialist to see if he could make a wig out of my own hair. I liked the idea of still having my hair, but being able to take it off at night so it wouldn't get all tangled and knotty. Best of both worlds! However, I was discouraged by the price and the time it would take to make it (a couple of months). Also, the wig-man told me that wigs made of natural hair are more difficult to maintain, especially if they are as long as mine. He suggested that I cut my hair before the chemo starts, plait it and store it in thin paper. This
will keep the strands in order, so that if I decide to make a wig out of it, I could.
He advised me to try a synthetic wig that was close enough to my current hair. He put one on my head and both my partner and I began laughing: it was one of those '80s big-hair' hairstyles like the ladies in soap series like Dallas or Dynasty used to wear. I asked him to try a straight blond bob, which is a polar opposite of my own hair. I looked ridiculous. We couldn't stop laughing making the shop keeper quite unnerved. These wigs were cheaper than making one from my hair, but I still couldn't quite see myself walking around with any of them. I looked at a few other examples, but all of them made me look like a fifty-something, rich, daft, suburban cougar.

I didn’t buy any of the wigs, but followed one advice of the "wig wallah": once the chemo starts, my hair would become lifeless and filled with toxins. I thought I had a few more weeks left to enjoy my long hair, but I would have to cut it before the process started. I felt quite defiant: no chemo will touch my hair, I'll cut it off before it has a chance to destroy it. Hah!

Today - one day before my first chemo session - is The Hair Cutting Day. I woke up extremely nervous. It felt like I was about to kill a part of me. I saw my hair as if in a flashback movie: spraying sea water after a dive as a teenager; a tangled mess of hair and sweat raving in my twenties; strands caught in a passionate kiss and caressed by different lovers; caught on film in a photo shoot; sat on in busses, pulled by hairdressers, stray hairs encrusted with dust on many floors around the globe… I got out of bed and had a bath. My hair was floating around my head like Medusa’s snakes. I brushed it one last time. Brushing was always difficult, but this time I enjoyed it. I said good bye to every knot, knowing that it was never going to come back again.
I plaited the untangled strands and put on a green velvet dress. My long hair was the last remnant of my years as a goth, with a fascination for all things medieval. Without the long hair, my goth look would finally disappear. Before it did, I completely immersed myself in its melancholy. I listened to Stevie Wishart's Viriditas, from a compilation of Hildegard von Bingen, with lyrics celebrating the greening energy behind all life. I lit the Night Queen incense and sat on the couch mourning my loss while sipping tea. By this time my partner woke up and was ready to begin the cutting. "Ready?" he asked. "Nearly" I replied "I just need one hug before we start." He hugged me then for a long time, stroking my soft, nearly a metre long curls…
Disentangling from my embrace, he sat me down next to our long dining table, where he was going to lay out the lengthy strands. He stood behind me with the electric clippers and began shaving the back of my neck. I kept my head down. To begin with I could only see hair in my field of vision. As the strands were cut, more of the world was becoming visible. I saw the bundle on the table getting bigger and noticed tears dripping in my lap. I felt as if my youth was being cut away from me, so abruptly. I was silently crying and my partner kept carefully cutting, with Viriditas playing in the background. It was a beautiful moment. Ruthless, intimate and tragically romantic. As with any moment, this one came to its end when the last strand of hair was laid on the table. It was time to lift my head and show my face. A face without a frame. He came to face me and lifted my chin. I opened my eyes to look at him and thought - if I see a disappointment or even a small hesitation, what shall I do?! But he was smiling, then laughing, and finally said "you look fifteen years old!"
We both laughed on the way to the mirror, where I cried some more, this time more from relief than sadness. It wasn't so bad after all… I carefully packed the hair bundle in gift-wrap paper and two long wine-bottle bags, placed it in a box on the bottom shelf and closed the cupboard.
We went for a walk a little while later. My head felt amazingly light and fresh, with the new sensations of wind and sun on my scalp. I still have about a half a centimetre of hair, but it’s quite a change after "carrying" heavy hair on my head for so many years. No hours of brushing, no hair lumps on clothing, the floor and the pillows. I wondered why I waited so long to cut it...

Three weeks later…
As I was sponging myself the morning after my second chemo session, a bunch of pubic hair came off and got stuck in the sponge. I passed a wet hand over my head and a whole handful of hair stuck to my palm. Even though I cut my hair to less than a centimetre, it still felt quire revolting and looked worse. My reflection in the mirror reminded me of photos from Auschwitz in the second World War: patches of thin hair revealing scabbed bald scalps, greyish skin, deeply sunken eyes with dark purple circles around them. In disgust, I shaved my whole head with a razor.
On my good days, I manage to look like a bald alien queen from Babylon 5. I like the idea of being bald, but I didn't realise how cold it would be. I even have to sleep with a beanie or a scarf. So, instead of the bald alien look, wearing wigs seems to be more a successful tactic.

After my first unsuccessful wig shopping, I went to a place where wigs are fashion items rather than a medical necessity. In Matonge, an African neighbourhood in Brussels, wig shops are plentiful and the wigs cheap and very diverse. I spent hours trying on different colours and styles, and found a few priced from as little as 10 euro. I could have 30 wigs for the price of one 'medicinal' one. My plotting and scheming started: I always wanted to have straight hair and a black bob, like Vulcans in Star-Trek. I went to a theatre shop and found one just like it. A few weeks later I found another one that was similar to my own hair, but cut in the burlesque style of 1920s. My brother bought me a bright pinkish-red bob, that was so cheerful that passers-by would often smile and ask me which hair dye I used. When I felt nostalgic for the length, I bought a long hair piece that I plaited inside a hollow hat. Then a friend gave me a tacky blond wig, that transformed me into an eastern European lady of the night. I had lots of fun changing my appearance after years of being imprisoned by my long hair. Without it, I felt free to explore, to change every day (sometimes even more than once a day), to see how my features and even my gestures changed with different looks. I also enjoy observing people's reactions. My friends sometimes don’t recognise me on the street.

Three months later…
My eye-lashes stopped growing for a couple of months, but now a few rebellious ones began growing again. They are white, sparse and of varying lengths. Some are even double or triple their usual length. They get stuck in my eyes when I blink. I can count the translucent hairs of my eyebrows on one hand. Not just my lashes and eyebrows began growing again. Patches of confused hair now grow as soft white fur on my cheeks and ears. I was looking forward to all of my hair being gone, which meant no shaving in the summer! Unfortunately, there is still hair on my legs, where I would have very much appreciated being completely smooth. I imagined that chemo would kill all my hair, but instead my body decided to surprise me with out-of-control single hairs and uncomely hair patches. It seems that my hair is one of my most resilient body-parts. Not even chemo can eradicate it!

One year later…
Exactly one year ago, one day after the second chemo session my hair started to fall out. Now, a year later it's back with a vengeance, rapidly growing into thick curls. With my newly discovered pleasure of going to a hair dresser, I’m changing styles every couple of months and dye it different colours each time. So far, I tried purple and red. The only problem is that the toxins are still seemingly lingering in my body, as the hair-dye behaves erratically, surprising both the hairdresser and me. We never know what the final result will be. The doctors say this will improve in time. When? Who knows. It might take years for the last traces of toxins to drain out of me. Perhaps then I will be able to grow my hair long again. Perhaps then I will become strong and healthy again. Like the biblical Samson. Perhaps… 
Maja, 42, female, Belgium/Croatia
#Identity #Loss #Wig #Symbolism