16 Jan


When I was in high school, my mother always told me that if G-d wanted to get my attention, He’d take my hair away from me before anything else.  “He’ll strike you and your hair!” she said one rainy evening in the dorm courtyard right as thunder crashed and lightning flashed.

I suppose it might have been a reasonable assumption – my hair was my best feature, after all.  It was thicker than the hair of anyone else I knew, long enough for me to sit on, and all an even length with no split ends.  The color was a deep, rich auburn, rare enough for people to ask me to cut them a lock to take to their hairdresser to copy.  Also rare enough to have African men hit on me during my time in France and Switzerland – the Senegalese girls explained to me that red hair is supposed to be witches’ hair with certain magical properties, and that every girl wants red hair for her wedding day.

I was relatively vain about my hair, so it was surprising how well I handled its loss over the course of my cancer treatments.  My medicine was not the kind of chemo that makes hair fall out – rather, it causes loss of pigmentation in the hair cells.  Since I took the chemo every day for four weeks with a two-week break between treatments, it caused my hair to grow stripes like a ferret’s, alternating auburn and clear.

Then I had to undergo whole-brain radiation, which does make the hair fall out.  Ironically, I ended up being more disappointed about losing my stripes than about losing my hair – after all, how many people can brag about having natural-grown stripes?

At first, I put off shaving my head – I wanted to give my hair the chance to not fall out, just in case it decided to cooperate with me.  But I ended up making an appointment with the hospital beauty shop just two or three days after my first radiation treatment because I was tired of having hair all over my shower, the pillow, the rug, my clothes…

I wish I’d had my mom bring the camera to chronicle the transformation – I like to make scrapbooks, and it would have made interesting subject matter for a spread of pictures.

The hairdresser asked me over and over again, “Are you sure you want your WHOLE head shaved?”  She must have thought that I didn’t speak French well enough to know exactly what I was asking for.  My mom and I both had to reassure her that it ALL needed to come off.

Halfway through the process, I looked like a punk rock star.  When we were finally done, I understood why men wear hats in winter – it’s cold without your hair!

It took weeks of me rubbing my hair over the sink to get all the roots out so I was completely bald.  The sink constantly looked as though a dark-haired man had just shaven his beard in it.

Hair follicles take six months to heal after radiation, so I was bald in March when I had my passport picture taken.  My hair began growing back in shortly after that, so we jokingly took some “GI Jane” pictures of me posing as a tough girl in what looked like military-style pants and an undershirt.

I wore hats and scarves for a long time, trying to hide my super-short hair, remembering the negative reaction that a local news anchor, Leslie Mouton, had gotten when she went on air without her wig following breast cancer treatment.

A year later, enough hair had regrown for an Orthodox friend (and fellow convert) in Israel to ask me over video Skype whether I had started wearing a sheitl.  That was the first time I felt like I had a real hairstyle since my hair had fallen out, and it felt good.


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