The itching started during dinner at the Ritz Carlton. Instinctively I reached up to scratch my head before remembering that my hair now moved. That is to say, it moved separately from my head. The lining of my wig was scratchy against my bare scalp.
When I had tried on wigs in the shop, prior to starting my chemo, I still had my own hair. “See how comfy that is?” the wig consultant, twenty years my junior with hair down to her tush, had said as she patted the synthetic hair over my own hair. She never bothered to mention how different the fake hair would feel against my bald head.
“You okay honey?” my husband, George, whispered, as I held my hand tentatively in mid-air, sort of like a wave gone awry. I didn’t know exactly what to do with my hand that was being drawn like a magnet to my itchy head. Terrified that the whole wig might come off in my hand if I succumbed to my impulse to scratch, I held my right hand on my lap with my left. I fought the urge to scratch as long as I could...about 45 seconds...before I shot up from the table, knocking over a glass of water. and ran, water dripping down my dress, to the hotel powder room.
Crazed with the need to scratch, I ripped the perfectly coiffed wig from my head, threw it on the table that held the fancy guest towels and started scratching with both hands. It felt so good that it took me a few moments to notice that I was not alone. A well-dressed older woman in a black suit with triple strands of pearls at her throat and silky gray hair swept into a fashionable knot, tried not to stare at me. She was artfully applying her lipstick in the mirror directly over my wig. My eyes moved swiftly from her face to the sight of my bald head, reflected in the mirror. “I seem to be having a bad hair day,” I said. She smiled and disappeared through the carved oak doorway.
I stayed calm. Evidenced by the fact that I was sitting bald in a ladies room with a wig in my lap. George, my mom, and dear friends Zandra and Paul had arranged the dinner in my honor. It was my “coming out” party. My first time in public with my newly revised body since my breast cancer surgery. Earlier, as I prepared for the celebration, I had felt like a teenager dressing for the prom. In my favorite dress, a short and sassy rust-colored knit number, with my new wig and prostheses, I felt moved to put on eye make-up for the first time since my cancer treatment began.
“It’s starting to feel like normal again,” I told George. “Even if many of my body parts can now be boxed up for the night.”
Sinking into one of the green and white striped silk slipper chairs that faced a full-length, I toyed with the idea of sticking my head in the sink to feel cool water against my scalp. Further evidence of my calmness. Instead I indulged myself in another scratching session, my hands going after my head like a cat on a scratching post. The itching gradually eased up, and staring at my wig, I started thinking about the role my hair had played in my life.
Somewhere in my mid twenties I had started “accentuating” the red highlights in my brown hair with a little help from my hairdresser. Pretty soon it was bye-bye brown; redheads rock. At about the same time a few gray streaks started appearing in my mother’s pretty, dark hair.
"Get rid of them,” I admonished her. I didn’t want to have a gray-haired mother, especially since she looked so young. And wash away the gray she did. Never, to this day, (she’s now 90, and still looks young) have I seen a gray hair on my mother’s head.
As the years passed, happy as a redhead, I supposed that I would carry on the family tradition I had imposed upon my mother with nary a gray hair gracing my head. “Me go gray? No way,” I told every hairdresser. That was my motto until a life altering event changed my mind...and my hair color. In addition to the expected gray hair, mid-life brought me an unexpected change...Cancer. In both breasts.
Strangely enough the decision to have a double mastectomy was not all that hard. Once I knew my breasts were diseased, they became the enemy and I didn’t want them any more.
My hair however, was a different matter. I am small-boned and thin. While no one had ever said I had a “great rack.” I was defined, in younger years, by my long thick red tresses, and in later years by my shorter pixie style thick red tresses. I wanted my hair. I needed my hair. I loved my hair. When I was told that chemotherapy was vital to my full recovery, and I would definitely lose my hair, I , err... wigged out. Literally.
LOOKING FOR HAIR IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
The search for the perfect wig began in fashion magazines. Only a good idea if you happen to look like a fashion model. “Wow,” I would say to George as I flipped through the pages of one gorgeous hair style after another. “How do you think I would look as a blond?” In a word, terrible, I discovered a few days later in the Wig Wam, where hair hung on hooks, like meat in a butcher shop. I detached some long blond curls, selected mainly because the hook was low enough for me to reach.
“Close your eyes,” I admonished George and my mom before I tried on the wig. I wanted them to get the full effect, after it was on my head, rather than seeing me put myself together like a puzzle. “Do blondes have more fun or what,?” I asked, trying to strike a sexy tone as I strutted toward them. The answer was in their expression. Or rather lack of expression. They stood stone still, smiles pasted on their faces. Afraid to speak. I took a long look in the full length mirror. Staring back at me was a washed-out, wanna-be hooker.
If I was bonkers as a blond, black was not better. Brown was blah. Gray, no way_ Long was ludicrous. I even tried an orange-red curly, I Love Lucy style. Let’s just say I’m no Lucille Ball. Several days and many wig shops later, I finally found what I wanted.
“Do you have any wigs that are like my own hair style and color?” I asked the consultant at the North Hollywood salon. This salon was unique in that it specialized in hair solutions for chemotherapy patients, as well as specialty wigs for the movie studios (how’s that for a combo–you gotta love LA). Bingo. She brought out an auburn number that was just right--slightly darker than my own hair. Placing it carefully on my head so that the fake pixie wisps covered my real ones, she explained that I should have my hairdresser trim the wig while I still had my own hair. That way we could get an exact match for the bangs and other details. Her words jumped out at me like a neon sign.
“Exact match.” That’s what I wanted. Here, amid the glamour of movie mega-stars, and endless opportunity to create a new persona, I discovered who I really wanted to be. I wanted to be me.
Soon, I was on my way home, wig on head, supplies, including faux-hair care shampoo and a cute set of bangs, that I could glue into hats, in hand.
“I guess all I ever wanted was my own hair,” I told George that night.
I found it the next morning. On my pillow. The first strands of hair had begun to fall out during the night, exactly 18 days after my first chemo treatment, just as my oncologist had predicted. In the beginning I viewed hair loss as being a victim. Then one day my oncologist said, “Look. The chemo is working; your hair is falling out.” And in that moment it became a less difficult means to a very worthwhile end.
Rather than shave my head, I opted to let my hair fall out naturally. Getting used to the change a little bit at a time worked better for me, process-oriented creature that I am. At the end of each day mom and I would sweep up hair from the floor measuring who had lost more hair, me or my cat. Gomar Kitty’s tabby black and silver color soon began to pale against the piles of my red hair. I took a cue from my aloof feline friend and decided that losing my hair was no big deal. Soon I was wearing a white knit hat to breakfast every morning, to keep my hair from falling into my food. Mom, who stayed with us for five months to help me through my treatment, took this idea to another level. When she called me in to lunch or dinner, she’d say with a laugh, “Don’t forget to dress for dinner.” That was my hat reminder.
When I had just a tuft of red hair left on the top of my head, George said that I looked like Woody Woodpecker. He started each day singing “HAH, Ha-ha-ha, HAH-HAH! It’s the Woody Woodpecker Song.” Even as I pretended to be mad at him, I couldn’t stop laughing at how funny I looked. I was practically bald except for a thick clump of red hair that stuck up about an inch from my head and curled forward. To this day, eight years later, if I wake up in the morning with my hair sticking up on the top of my head, we burst into song.
When the last strand of my hair finally fell out, George gently touched my head and said, with a tenderness I will never forget, “You know Baldy, you have an elegantly shaped head.”
Elegantly shaped or not, when the hair was gone, I wanted my head covered. The night at the Ritz was the official kick-off of many “itchy” events to come during the months that followed.
Rest rooms became my personal spas. No longer sink shy, I developed the ritual of “run and dip.” During a business lunch at a restaurant, I would excuse myself to go to the ladies room when the first signs of an itch appeared. I could pull off my wig, dunk my head in the sink, splash with water, pat dry, scratch, replace wig and touch-up my lipstick in seven minutes flat. Dining with friends, I’d just laugh and say “gotta go scratch.”
Sometimes the itch would come on so suddenly that getting to a ladies room was not an option. I kept a large purple straw picture-frame hat in the car to hide behind if I had to scratch on the run. Once at a fancy wedding in a private club, I ducked behind a coat rack and stuck my head in some woman’s fur wrap, scratching my head with one coat sleeve while I stuffed the wig in the other. Panicked that she might return to retrieve her coat while my head was still in her sleeve, I imagined myself having to scamper away on my hands and knees trying to pass myself off as some strange furry animal.
After the fur incident I started to rely on hats and scarves as much as possible. There are some women who can wrap a scarf around their heads and make it into a work of art or a fashion statement. Unfortunately I am not one of them. The babushka wrap was more my skill level, a style that, let’s face it, really isn’t a style. I progressed from tying the scarf under my chin to behind my head, a slightly more fashionable look, especially if you wear bangs.
Now bangs are another whole story. I taped. I glued. I super-glued. Once, in desperation, I even stapled the bangs to my scarf. But the results were not good. They kept falling off and turning up in odd places. My supermarket cart. On the gas pedal of my car. “What’s next?” I wondered, “My beef stew?” When they turned up in an unlikely bathroom appliance, I decided to flush fake bangs from my life forever.
“Hand over the hats,” I said to mom, hiding behind the door of a Macy’s dressing room, my wig already balanced on a dress hook. I owned many hats, but nothing seemed to make the statement I wanted. Studying myself carefully in the mirror, I realized that maybe George was right. I did have an elegantly shaped head. Stuffing the wig in my tote-bag, I left the dressing room, bare headed, and asked a startled saleslady to direct me to the earring counter. Mom got it immediately. She had been with me when I told the oncologist about the itching problem.
He had replied, “Wear big earrings and show off your nice head.”
She picked up a pair of large hoops with dangling stones in my favorite lavender and purple colors. They were feminine in form and when I slipped them through my pierced ears, and gazed in the mirror, I felt feminine, even without hair.
I purchased the earrings, which I kept on, as I walked my bald head to the car. Although I did not choose to continue to walk around bald in public, I relished the new found freedom of having it as an option.
About seven months after my chemo treatments ended, little sprouts of hair starting popping through my scalp, like grass from seed. When my hair grew in, it was...you guessed it... gray. Soft and shiny with beautiful salt and pepper curls. “I love it,” George said. Amazingly, so did I.
That however is not the end of the story. A year later, when the curls went straight and my hair lay in gray flat layers on my head, I chose to become a redhead again. It’s just that this time, it was a choice, not a necessity. Will I ever go gray? Maybe someday.
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