The hair is the richest ornament of women.
— Martin Luther
My beloved grandmother, who Nate and I (and his children, and our cousins) call Mimi, was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma – breast cancer – last month. It’s stage 2, so relatively early, but grade 3, so relatively aggressive. She had her first chemotherapy treatment yesterday.
David and I went down to visit her in North Carolina last weekend. She is, perhaps understandably, very bitter about her diagnosis. She sort of resents having to take a year out of her life for chemo and then surgery and then radiation. But more than anything else, at least right now, she’s devastated that she’s going to lose her hair. Her doctor gave her a prescription for a wig (I presume so that it will be paid for by insurance), and although she’s trying to take it in stride, she’s pretty angry that it’s going to come to that.
My parents were down to see her the weekend before. My mom had breast cancer many years ago – last fall was 5 years since she finished treatment and she’s not had any relapses, so I guess they consider her “cured.” When Mimi expressed her sadness over losing her hair, my mother said, “It’s just hair.” I have two problems with this: First, that comment seems to imply that losing your hair is no big deal, but it’s not as if my mom went around town with her bald head shining for all to see – she wore scarves all the time, even in the heat of summer, and the only one she let see her without them was my dad. I want to be clear that I don’t fault my mother for that at all – if that’s how she felt most comfortable in public, I’m all for it – but it’s almost like she’s forgotten how losing her hair affected her and thinks Mimi shouldn’t be making a big deal about it, and I don’t think that’s fair.
Second, and more importantly, that comment shows just how little my mother understands Mimi (who is my father’s mother). My Mimi is a vain woman. I say that without any judgment at all; it’s a simply fact of who she is. She is 78 years old and still dyes her hair her signature auburn. She puts on full make-up every day, no matter what. She wears pantyhose under her pants in all seasons – smooths things out, you know. In her 60s, she had (minor) plastic surgery on her face. When she turned 65, I said, “Now you can retire!” She said, “No, I can’t – everyone at work thinks I just turned 60!” And that’s true. She lies about her weight on her driver’s license. She is vain, and her hair is a central piece of her identity. It’s not just hair.
And more than any of that, as she explained to me last weekend, her sadness at losing her hair is all tied up with memories of her father, who is long gone, but who she remembers so fondly. She said, “My sister had straight hair, but I had curly hair. Whenever I went somewhere with my father, he would introduce me saying, ‘This is Diane, my curly-haired daughter.'” I get that, so much. It is not just hair. Not for her.
I don’t know that my own hair means that much to me. I mean, I like it and all, but I’m not sure I’m all that attached to it. I’d like to think that if I were in Mimi’s position, I’d take it as an opportunity to play with wigs and do crazy stuff – no one would dare say anything, right? Cancer!
In all seriousness, I can’t possibly know how I’d react in her circumstances, and I’m sure as hell not going to make her feel bad for feeling angry and sad and fearful and whatever else she feels facing her impending hair loss. Each person’s experience is unique, and whatever Mimi feels is legitimate and valid. My only job is to be there for her, whatever she needs.