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My 7-year-old daughter, Betsy, is busily growing out her hair. I say the word busily because when you're 7, letting your hair grow is a time-consuming affair. You need to brush it at least 18 times a day and at each brushing you need to have someone see how long it is when it's smooth. You need to wash it every night and when you're out of the tub you need to have at least one person witness how long it is when it's soaking wet. When someone else brushes your growing hair, you need to scream very loudly in her ear, "Stop killing me!"
Betsy is growing her hair so she can donate it to Locks of Love, an organization that provides hairpieces to disadvantaged children who've lost their hair to cancer, alopecia, or another illness. Her interest in doing this comes from her peers -- donating hair has become trendy among teens and tweens, a do-good rite of passage -- as well as from a classmate who has alopecia. For me her ardor is bittersweet. My mother, who died when Betsy was just 3 months old, lost all her hair to chemotherapy during a prolonged battle with cancer. Ironically, this is something that Betsy knows nothing about.
My curly-haired mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer on her 61st birthday, just three years after a divorce that ripped chunks out of her self-esteem. Her husband (yes, my father) left her for another woman, and not even a younger woman, but someone his age. At the time of her diagnosis, my mother was just beginning to reestablish her sense of femininity -- which, for better or worse, she gauged by her attractiveness to men.
Hair loss makes a woman's experience of cancer very different from a man's. Somehow it turns every female cancer patient into a political activist, a revolutionary, an often-unwilling symbol of humanity's greatest fear -- mortality.
My mother wanted none of this. She wanted to go to work, to the grocery store, or out to dinner without public scrutiny and that earnest concern she perceived as pity. For her, hair loss was one of the hardest of all the psychic blows during her battle with cancer. Hair loss meant she couldn't pass as a healthy person. On top of that, she felt like less of a woman.
Almost as soon as she was diagnosed, my mother was fitted for a wig -- the most realistic hairpiece her insurance money could buy. Not only did she never set foot outside her door without wearing it, she also refused to acknowledge that it was not her own hair. If anyone made reference to her new hairstyle, my mother would smile a tight smile and thank him or her for noticing. If someone asked whether she was wearing a wig -- which a surprising number of people did -- my mother lied with a flat, firm, don't-you-dare-take-another-step "No."
I admit to having been troubled at times by her reaction. Shouldn't cancer have caused her to appreciate life and cast aside ridiculous patriarchal definitions of femininity? It took work for me to allow my mother to deal with both hair loss and cancer in her own way, to see them as experiences that were hers alone to define.
Betsy is too young to associate hair loss with life-threatening illness. She thinks only of her classmate who is "allergic to her own hair," who talked all year long about the wig she was going to get and how happy it would make her, and whose entire demeanor did in fact change the moment she walked into the classroom with a head full of strawberry blonde waves. My daughter wants to be another child's hero.
So I comb, comb, comb Betsy's hair in preparation for the day it measures 10 inches from the base of her ponytail to the tip, the day Betsy says she will allow someone to cut it all off. I find it hard to imagine, Betsy letting go so easily of the golden mane that has preoccupied her for more than a year. But she insists she will.
Years after my mother's death I stumbled upon a packet of photos she'd taken of her own reflection during one of her many rounds of chemotherapy. She stands before the mirror in her bedroom, her arm outstretched to hold the camera. There's a big smile on her face and her perfect head is shiny, bald and beautiful -- no wig in sight. There were 15 photos in all, each as happy and life-affirming as the others.
It turns out I'd had it all wrong. My mom's insistence on a wig wasn't about fear and vanity; it was about strength and courage. Each day she looked illness, death, and her altered self in the face, donned her wig, and got on with it. If that isn't female power, I don't know what is. Surely that is where my daughter gets her guts and determination. Every hero gets to have a hairpiece -- or lose a ponytail -- when she wants to.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2011.