I didn’t know how to prepare for chemo. I wanted a list of things to do to make me “ready”, but my only clear tasks were to turn up and allow my blood to be drawn one day and my body pumped with poisons the next.
But I did know my hair would probably fall out. It occurred to me that one thing I could do to prepare myself would be to cut it short, preemptively. I didn’t want to shave it off, but a shorter style seemed like a useful emotional step toward losing it all. At least I wouldn’t go abruptly from locks past my shoulders to a buzz-cut.
However, my most recent attempt at short hair had been as a 19-year-old studying abroad in England. Just a bit shorter than a jaw-length bob, it had the tendency to puff into a dome about my face and roundly emphasize the extra weight I’d put on devouring 3-for-a-pound Cadbury’s from the student shop. An attempt to fix it during a visit to Rome merely converted the brown bouffant into a cherry red one, with the hip but deeply unflattering addition of an asymmetrical fringe.
I had no desire for another cherry red disaster, but I didn’t have a regular hairdresser in New York. Although I’d been to a handful of salons of varying degrees of competence and cost, none so far had convinced me to return. I would, it seemed, be entrusting this monumental cut to someone entirely untested. Eventually, I settled on a stylist called Penelope from the salon that had done my hair the day I got married at City Hall. Her bio said she had a particular passion for women’s short styles.
I decided in advance to tell her the reason for the dramatic change, as I didn’t want her to try and talk me out it. She didn’t make a fuss. Instead, she explained how she’d have to get know my hair, its quirks and whorls. We didn’t talk about cancer, but discussed the vintage scarf she wore around her hair, her new white leather boots, her relationship with her mother.
The cut she gave me wasn’t exactly like the pictures I’d brought with me. I didn’t quite pull off a pixie-ish Carrie Mulligan. But it clearly suited my thick mop of hair. I didn’t look like me, exactly, but I liked it anyway. As I admired the new style in the mirror, I teared up with gratitude, and hope. The cut was symbolic: a sign of a future that didn’t quite look like the old one but in which I might find new ways to be true to myself.
They wouldn’t let me pay for the haircut in the end, and even gifted me a tub of hair product for my new do.
I was overwhelmed with gifts that day, from people who did not know me but who nonetheless wanted me to be happy and well. It would not be the last time I received unexpected kindness from strangers. It is one of the gifts of this unsought-for fate, to see the love in the hearts of people for another human. The transcendent urge to relieve me of my suffering not because of who I am, but simply because I am another human being.