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For So Long, My Hair Defined Me. Now It's A Fight Song

The author, pictured with long hair, in college. (Courtesy)
The author, pictured with long hair, in college. (Courtesy)

In early May 2012, my oldest friend, Elisa, came to visit from California to lend her support. “We’re all going to come with you for the haircut,” she tells me. (The “all” refers to my friend and neighbor, Hope, and my husband, John.)

We four pile into the car and drive to town for the haircut: a normal activity morphed into a surreal field trip.

We enter the salon, rich with the scent of herbal shampoo and the roar of blow dryers. Everyone looks up from their work to say hello. I try to be upbeat because I trust Jeff, my stylist, and his scissors.

“How much?” Jeff asks. I look at my head of hair, in virtually the same style I’ve worn since junior high, and wonder how much is too much? Or, more importantly, how much is too little?

--

When I went to meet the “infusion team,” just a few weeks earlier after getting a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, one of my first questions was: will I lose my hair?

The kind nurse, the one who would become my rock, the one who never sugar-coated anything but always took just the right tone, looked me in the eye: “Yes, probably all of it.” Instant grief set in, the kind you know will only get worse with time.

He is carving out a new head of hair. I feel the terrain of my skull.

I’ve always been recognized by my hair: a thick mess of dark waves. People used to say: “You know Kathy. She has that amazing hair.”

I was about to lose my best feature.

--

We collectively decide Jeff will cut up to my shoulders, and then we’ll assess. I close my eyes. I hear the snip snip of his scissors and feel the weight fall away. It feels kind of like freedom, but also like the beginning of a death sentence.

I open my eyes and there I am in his mirror, still there, surprised I haven’t been erased.

“I think you need to just go for it and cut right up to the ears,” says Elisa. Of course, she is right. She’s always been decisive; she does what needs to be done.

Jeff, who has been trimming my hair and listening to the stories of my life for over a decade, agrees. “I’ll go slow.”

“OK. Just do it,” I tell him and squeeze my eyes tight like a child who doesn’t want to see the needle go into her arm.

The author, pictured at 3 years old, with her mother. (Courtesy)
The author, pictured at 3 years old, with her mother. (Courtesy)

He snips again, but this time I can tell he is sculpting, layering, using his scissors to do something more than remove hair. He is carving out a new head of hair. I feel the terrain of my skull.

“Wow,” says Elisa. “You are totally pulling this off!”

I hear John’s deep voice next. “Kath, you look really beautiful.”

Eventually, Jeff stops. “I think it works!”

I open my eyes slowly. I see someone who looks like me, but isn’t sure who she is. Her hair is chic, stylish.

I am reminded of a photograph taken around 1959. I’m almost three in that photo, cocooned in a snowsuit. My mother, wearing a felt coat, her silky hair to her shoulders with a little flip curl, is carrying me. I have a cute little hair style up to my ears. We’re both grinning.

--

I don’t know how awful or tolerable the next six months of treatment will be. Cutting off my hair is just clearing the road to allow the journey to officially begin.

The nurse says my hair will fall out sometime between infusions two and three. Getting a serious haircut is a way to stay ahead of it. A way to make the dark brown hairs that accumulate on my pillow each night a little less horrifying.

My husband looks at me like he still loves me. Maybe more. My friends look at me like I’m brave. But I’m not, I’m just doing what must be done.

My big brown eyes pop. I still see me.

The author, in May 2012, just after leaving the salon on the day she got "the haircut." (Courtesy)
The author, in May 2012, just after leaving the salon on the day she got "the haircut." (Courtesy)

--

It’s been eight-and-a-half years since my diagnosis. I’ve often wondered, when, if ever, I would grow out my hair again.

Every time I considered it, I found some reason not to. I had grown accustomed to the shortness, the new frame on my old face. It’s so easy to care for. The way it controlled the thickness of my hair and made me look more together, even stylish? There was always a commitment, where I didn’t want to look unkempt and in-between haircuts.

If I’m being perfectly honest, though, keeping my hair short all these years might have been my way of saying: I survived, and I don’t have to go back to the old me to prove it. I control the trauma.

--

We are 10 weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m home day after day, seeing no one, going nowhere, watching my once stylish head morph into something stranger all the time.

The back of my head is now a wall of thick, old-Kathy hair. The curve across my forehead, the sweep of bang is long and unruly. My sideburns are catastrophic. Each day I feel a little more out of control and unappealing.  I wash it, add “product,” but nothing lessens the blow that greets me in the mirror each morning. My hair is a tween, forever awkward.

I survived, and I don’t have to go back to the old me to prove it. I control the trauma.

I consider asking my husband to take our dull house scissors to tame the unruly mess. But I decide against it.

Apparently the time to grow out my hair has finally arrived. I’ve been trying to gauge how long it will be when we return to whatever our “new normal” is to come — shoulder length, ears still exposed or covered? God forbid, it’s below my shoulders. It’s like trying to guess how many pennies are in a jar.

--

So many days this spring have been grey and cold. I’ve been reminding myself that I made it through six months of chemotherapy. I made it through stage 3/4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

We will stay home. We will ride this out. There will be tough days and joyful ones. And my hair will grow a little bit longer each day, taking me back to a younger me and then to an older me, with ever-thickening dark brown hair, now laced with gray and white streaks. Growing out my hair, oddly enough, is a sign of being alive, of beating this pandemic.

And still, my big brown eyes pop.

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Kathy Gunst is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and the author of 15 cookbooks.

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