by Jana Johnston Moritzkat
Amy agonized over losing her blonde cotton candy hair to the shower drain. Her poker straight locks were baby fine, and when she teased and coated them with hairspray they puffed up and swirled like spun sugar. The chemotherapy nurse had said her hair would begin falling out two weeks after her first treatment. That was three days ago.
Amy needed to have her head shaved. She couldn’t bear to look at herself in the mirror and see islands of wispy hair floating around her barren skull. But at the same time she couldn’t let her hair dresser know or suspect she had cancer. Amy didn’t want to be the talk of the salon and hear whispers or see sad looks or receive a card. She needed people to envy her, not pity her.
Needing a quick solution to her conundrum, she knew she could count on me. “Why don’t you go to another salon and say you want to shave it to see if it will grow back thicker,” I began.
“Absolutely not,” she informed me, “any hairdresser worth a darn knows from the dull lifeless texture of your hair that you’re undergoing chemotherapy, and I don’t want to talk to anyone about my breast cancer!”
Amy needed to have her head shaved. She couldn’t bear to look at herself in the mirror and see islands of wispy hair floating around her barren skull.
“How about a barber shop?” I retorted. “Men aren’t as suspicious and will never figure it out.”
She paused and I knew I had her. “Let’s go,” she said before she came up with another obstacle. Driving up the road, we got silly concocting stories about what we’d say and how the barber would react. It was so easy for us to revert to 14- and 10-year-olds.
When we arrived, we were having so much fun that we all but skipped up the wooden ramp and past the circulating barber pole, anxious to play our roles. The bell tinkled as I pushed open the door and we walked into a man cave. Dusty wooden floors and bare tobacco stain colored walls surrounded us. A few hooks hung near the door for coats. A row of maroon leather stools served as the waiting area across from two antique barber chairs. A lone barber dressed in his white double-breasted smock was adding the finishing snips to the top of a customer’s crew cut to make it bristle. We sat and I picked up an auto mechanics magazine.
The barber turned the client toward the mirror to view his new buzz and dusted his neck with a large powdered brush. The barber’s license was taped to the mirror. His name was Wayne. A shelf held a Barbasol jar with combs floating in blue liquid. Electric clippers swung from small hooks down near an overloaded electrical outlet next to the sink. “Looks great,” the client said as Wayne released him from his black cape. The client stood and reached for his wallet.
“Who’s next?” the barber asked, grabbing his broom.
“She is,” I said pointing my finger gun at Amy and firing. “She lost the bet, and I’m here to make sure she lives up to her end of the bargain.” Amy hopped into his chair. “Yes, that’s correct. I lost the bet, and I want you to shave me bald,” she smiled at me.
Thinking he looked good with his new haircut, the client pulled on his jacket and asked, “What was the bet about?” hoping for a good story to tell his buddies over a beer.
“Oh, it’s something that’s not polite to discuss in mixed company,” I answered. He shook his head and walked to the door. I flared my nostrils at Amy – our secret signal of disgust – and the bell tinkled, and the door closed behind him.
Wayne grabbed his clippers. “Totally bald?” he asked Amy. “Are you positive?”
“Yes, yes,” we giggled, “it will always grow back.”
Amy tilted her chin to her chest at the barber’s gentle touch. The clippers buzzed, and the barber shaved stripes of baldness from the back of her head forward. Her cotton candy tumbled to her shoulders and floated to the floor. This wasn’t a game; this was real. My baby sister had cancer. The corner of Amy’s mouth moved and her eye squinted. She was sad but so brave. I was sad too but proud of how she was coping and managing each obstacle that got in her way.
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Jana Johnston Moritzkat is a stay-at-home mom and supportive sister. She takes classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2012.