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The Bald Truth

Losing Her Hair Was Hard, but Losing Her Life Was the Real Issue

November 26, 2000|SUSAN BASKIN | Susan Baskin last wrote for the magazine about going gray

I was bald the summer of '99. Few outside my family knew. I had a wig made to match my hair, which fell out from chemotherapy.

Thick, wavy, with streaks of gray in the front, my own hair stopped people in the street and drew comments from strangers. "Waterfall hair," my son called it. "Power hair," a colleague once said. My hair was my signature, and the thought of losing it seemed like opening the front door to my house to find it occupied by a stranger.

After my diagnosis with breast cancer, my husband and I told our children. We stressed that I had a good prognosis and differentiated between life and movies they'd seen; my story was not "Stepmom." Anticipating chemotherapy, we tried to prepare them for the side effects. Losing my hair was one of them.

After some days passed and we became more accustomed to the news, I suggested to my kids that a wig might be fun. I could be a blond. Or a redhead. My daughter rolled her eyes in adolescent exasperation. My 9-year-old son shook his head. "We want you to look like Mom," he said. Same hair color. Same length. The fact that nature had made my hair distinct and hard to replicate didn't faze them.

I found a wig maker, a Hollywood denizen whose father made wigs for Max Factor and whose mother was a hairstylist for starlets during the studios' heyday. As I sat in the swivel chair before the mirror of his salon, he used a tape measure to determine the diameter of my head and calculate my wig size. For color, he snipped samples of hair from the silver streaks around my face and the salt-and-pepper waves in back. Polaroids were taken--front and side views.

Ten days after my first chemotherapy, I noticed a few hairs littering my blouse. Without thinking, I brushed them off; I was always finding stray hairs on my clothing. The next morning, I awoke and saw a swath of hair on my pillow. I began to notice strands of hair on the floor, tracing my path, like Theseus' thread in the labyrinth. Wherever I went, I shed pieces of myself. My children were intrigued by this phenomenon. There was something oddly magical for them in the way that I could simply touch my hair and it would fall as silently as snow. But because my hair was so thick, a critical mass still remained. The fate that I knew awaited me remained an abstraction.

Until the itching set in. Surprisingly, what propelled me to act was not the psychological experience, but the physical sensation. Losing my hair felt uncomfortable. My scalp tingled. My head itched. I was constantly retracing my steps with a Dustbuster. Finally I went to my hairstylist of 20 years. "Cut it off," I said.

That afternoon, when I opened the door for my son, he gasped, seeing me, and covered his eyes. The corona of hair that had circled my face his entire life was gone. Now my hair lay close to my head, like a swim cap. For the next hour, my son refused to look at me. "I don't like it," he finally said. I assured him my hair would grow back. "I hate cancer," was his reply.

The day before my wig was ready, a young hairstylist made a house call with her clippers. As I sat in my backyard, she sheared off my remaining hair. I was bald. My son walked over and leaned into my lap. "Mommy's buzzed," he said. Suddenly I was an item of interest. He noticed my shorn hair on the grass. Could we leave it for the birds to build a nest? I agreed. "You look weird," my son said, grinning so widely that his braces gleamed.

The next day I drove to my wig maker. I sat motionless for a moment before taking off my hat and the scarf I'd wound around my head. Despite my wig maker's nonchalance, I felt naked when I removed them, as if there was something more intimate about exposing my bald head than any other part of my body.

On the work counter I saw a mound of curls--my wig. I scrutinized it, hoping to feel a connection with the shanks of hair I'd be sporting as my own. The wig maker lifted a bag of double-backed tape. He demonstrated how to affix the tape to the net lining of the wig--a chevron shape at the front hairline, a straight piece on either side. I felt the glue of the tape seal itself to my bare scalp and the body slide over my crown. With the wig secure, the wig maker began plying the tight curls, turning them into the softer waves captured in the Polaroids. As he feathered and trimmed, clamping hair around the same curling iron his father used in Max Factor's garage, I found myself wondering about the Russian women who had sold their hair to make the wig. I saw these women in overcoats, their backs braced against the Russian cold, their cascading hair cut and tied into sheaves, then sprouting once again like a crop grown to be harvested. Finally, the styling was done. But the image I found in the mirror was as jarring as seeing myself bald. Real as the wig's hair was, it wasn't mine. I had disappeared.

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