Three weeks after your first dose of chemo, you feel your hair stop growing. It starts as a tingle, then evolves into a dull ache creeping along the scalp as each follicle dies.
Sure, try to prolong the inevitable. Sleep on a satin pillowcase. Refrain from combing. Wear your twin sister’s button-ups so that no snug neckline is tugged over your head. But eventually, you’ll take a shower, where you will truly understand for the first time in your thirty-three years what it means to surrender.
Begin in the mirror. Fail to recognize your swollen, chemo-flushed face. Skim your fingers through your limp bangs. How easily these hairs, delicate as dandelion wisps, unroot in your hand.
Turn on the water full blast. Step into the shower, and hope you’ll still have some hair when you step out. Know you won’t. Plug the drain to prevent clogging. Let the angry spray scrub your scalp like a pressure washer erasing mildew from the vinyl paneling of a house.
The clumps loosen from your head and slide down your back, gathering at your feet like drenched kittens.
This shower is only a formality. A ritual. You were bald before you stepped into the porcelain altar of tile. You just couldn’t see it yet.
Try to be okay with this. Grasp for some comfort in the cleansing, the purifying, the safe relief of a blank slate. Try to convince yourself that you feel reborn, bald as the day of your birth, while your hair puddles at your ankles. Turn off the water.
Pull back the shower curtain for the big reveal. Laugh at the starkness of your bare head in the mirror. Feel ugly. Naked. Alone. Bend down to gather fistfuls of wet hair to fling in the toilet. Flush. Your laughter gives way to weeping, then shuddering, then screaming into a towel. Look again at the tortured, contorted stranger in the mirror and cackle.
Remember this humor and this horror, how they are closer than you ever thought. You couldn’t laugh or scream if you were already dead inside.
Give in to this wave of grief, which isn’t just about losing your hair. You’re losing your identity. Your femininity. Your belief that you aren’t superficial. Your control over your body.
After all this, get dressed. Put on the wig your mother couldn’t afford but bought for you anyway. Fill in your eyebrows with a brown pencil.
After all this, ride shotgun to your twin sister’s hair appointment in the city.
After all this, sit on a ridiculous salon chair with the absurd dryer attached and watch the stylist’s fingers slide through your twin’s thick honey-blonde hair. Look. Your twin smiles at you in the mirror. Look. Only what is cut hits the ground.
Sara Pirkle Hughes is the author of The Disappearing Act, which won the 2016 Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry. Her poems have been published in Rattle, Reed, Emrys, and Atticus Review, among other journals. A recipient of writing fellowships from I-Park Foundation, The Anderson Center, and The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts & Sciences, she teaches at The University of Alabama, where she co-hosts the Pure Products Reading & Lecture Series.
Featured Image Credit: Amy Pirkle