Chapter 9: Losing It
MY WHOLE LIFE I have hated my hair, no matter what style or what color it was. Well, except when I was a little girl. When I was very little, my hair was light blond, wavy, and shoulder length. I especially liked it when my mom would set it in pink spongy rollers at night, before school pictures or a special event.
I got a Dorothy Hamill cut when I was about eight years old — Mom’s idea, not mine. By then, my hair was turning a light brown. I cried when Mom took me to get that haircut, because I thought short hair would make me look like a boy. That was the same summer I got my ears pierced, and my excitement at having hair short enough to show off my pretty earrings quelled my frustration for a while.
Fast-forward to freshman year in high school. It was 1983 and big hair was in, so I brought a picture of Stevie Nicks to my hairdresser and asked her to copy it, which meant I’d have to
get my first perm. Needless to say, my hair came out nothing like hers, but I loved it just the same. My hair was down past my shoulders, curly, and layered on top with bangs that I styled with lots of hair spray to get the big-hair effect. When I had this look, my father would never miss the chance to make fun of it, saying it looked as though I had stuck my finger in a light socket. I tried to suck it up and pretend that it didn’t bother me, but of course it did. Even my grandmother, whom I loved dearly, would pick the worst bad-hair day to ask, “What did you do to your hair, dear?”
Despite my family’s opinion, I kept that style through the first couple of years of high school. Junior year I decided to be drastic and cut it all off into a short bi-level cut — very 1985. I
loved the simplicity and look of my short hair, but after about a month I was back to hating it, mostly because I thought I would never find a guy unless I had long hair. Guys only like
girls with long hair and big boobs, right? Guess what? I didn’t have those either!
The cycle of growing and cutting, crying and hating went on for years. I added hair color to the mix when perming was going out of style. I began highlighting my hair in my late 20s and was saddled with expensive upkeep. The more I did it, the lighter my hair got, and I couldn’t keep up with the roots. I soon found out that I couldn’t increase my self-esteem with a bottle
of hair dye. I hated my hair as a brunette and I hated it even more as a blonde. Every day became a bad-hair day. About a year before my cancer diagnosis, at the height of
my online dating, I finally stepped off the hairdo–roller-coaster ride. I decided to grow it and wear it just below my shoulders. I still thought I needed long hair to find a man, and I needed all the help I could get. I never thought I would find anyone who would love me like Paul had, someone who would accept me, flaws and all. Most of the time, the flaws were all I saw.
THOUGH I HAD STARTED thinking that I should just pack it in with the dating thing, something kept me in the game. Chris and I had arranged another date after our Central Park outing.
I was hoping that when he looked at my hair, he would just think I had gotten a really bad haircut. I invited Jenn over after work that day to show her the expensive wig I had bought.
I needed some moral support because I thought the wig was really bad. And I was nervous about the date — it was number three. I knew I had to tell Chris about the cancer and just hoped I wouldn’t be trampled when he took off running. I told myself that at least we hadn’t known each other long, so it wouldn’t be that big a deal to lose him. But that was a lie. I was getting good at lying to myself.
I was in the bathroom trying to make some kind of hairdo. The shedding had become more intense, but I was pretty good at styling hair that was hanging on by a thread. That night I
tried putting some styling wax in it to spike up some of the layers a bit, to try for the messy look, hoping that would hide some of the sparse areas. Then again, I didn’t want to use too much product, because that would mean I would have to wash it out of my hair. As I grabbed a little jeweled bobby pin and pulled back the short bangs, a few tears began to fall. This certainly wasn’t the shortest ’do I ever had, or the worst. But I knew what was coming next — no hair at all. I was trying not to start sobbing when I heard a knock at the door. It was Jenn.
“Hey, Cath! How’s it goin’?” She threw her arms around me.
“Uh, I guess I’m okay. Actually, I take that back.” I wiped some tears off my cheek.
“It’s just I have this date tonight and my hair looks like crap! What is Chris gonna say when he sees my hair? What am I gonna do? I shouldn’t even go. Last time he saw me my hair was long and now look at this!”
“Don’t worry, Cath, you look great. Besides, he is dating you, not your hair,” she said.
“You are full of shit, but thanks anyway!” I said. We both broke into laughter.
As I walked into my bedroom I said, “Since you’re here I want to show you my stupid wig. And I want you to be honest with me. ”
“Of course I will. Don’t worry; I’m sure it’s fine,” she said with a smile.
I got the wig out of the closet but couldn’t bear to put it on so I just showed it to her.
“It’s nice. And it matches the color of your hair exactly.”
“You don’t think it will make me look old?” I asked, searching her face for the truth.
“No way, Cath. Don’t worry so much. It will be fine,” she said matter-of-factly.
Easy for her to say, I thought. She wasn’t the one who was going to be bald in a few days. Jealousy was bubbling up in my stomach as I looked at Jenn’s pretty blond curls pulled up into a high ponytail.
Jenn stayed for a little while and helped me get ready. I put on my trusty white blouse and my black pants, the only outfit I thought looked good on me now. Would tonight be the
night my hair would “release” (a fancy term for going bald)? I only hoped it wouldn’t happen in front of Chris. That would be sweet, wouldn’t it? I pictured the two of us back at his place
making out on the couch. First his hand touches my face and for a second I get lost in the kisses, until he reaches up to run his fingers through my hair, only to be left with a hunk of it in his hand. Now, that’s an awkward moment. One for the record books. It would be a date he wouldn’t soon forget. As I shuddered at the thought, I glanced up at the clock and noticed it was already 6:00. It was getting late and I had a 45-minute drive into Manhattan. I looked in the mirror for the last time. There was nothing more I could do. I brushed some hair off my
shirt, grabbed my purse, and headed out.
IT WAS ONE OF THOSE Indian summer nights in October that made you forget that winter is just around the corner. Walking up the hill to Chris’s apartment building, my stomach began
to churn. I opened the door, rang the bell, and was quickly buzzed in. As I climbed what felt like a thousand steps up to the third floor, my abdominal muscles let me know I was only
eight weeks postsurgery. I was out of breath when I reached the top of the stairs.
Chris was waiting for me outside his apartment door and greeted me with a smile and a hug. I cringed as I waited for him to notice my haircut or, rather, the big fall-out. To my surprise,
he didn’t even notice. Isn’t that just like a guy? The last time he had seen me, my hair was down past my shoulders; now it was above my ears. I didn’t know if I should feel relieved or insulted. I thought about it for a second and decided to consider myself lucky there was no mention of my hair. There would be enough talk about that later.
We decided on Italian. The Upper East Side has a lot of wonderful sidewalk cafés and it was perfect weather for eating outside. Chris knew a nice place ten blocks away, on 82nd
Street, with a sidewalk café. On our walk, as I tucked my hair behind my ear I felt some between my fingers. I tried to rub my hand nonchalantly on my jacket, and wondered if Chris
noticed. Little did he know he was about to dine with a balding cancer patient. I wondered what Chris was thinking about the fact that this was our third date. Was he expecting me to sleep with him? I was not a “sex-on-the-third-date” kind of girl, but a kiss would be nice. Actually, a good makeout session would be great!
I had so many mixed feelings about sex. I was definitely attracted to Chris, and always got butterf lies in my stomach when I held hands with him. But even making out could lead to
trouble given that I hadn’t fessed up yet. Of course, I didn’t need to worry about that because I was certain that the news flash I was saving for the end of the night would put a screeching halt to any thought of sex. I hadn’t even thought about how I was going to tell him. I’d have to wing it.
We didn’t have to wait long for a table outside. I was hungry but afraid to eat, in case I became sick to my stomach. Chris told me I looked nice. He ordered a beer for himself and
a soda for me. I was on too many meds to have alcohol. If I had been a drinker, a beer would have come in handy — nothing was calming my nerves. I told myself to live in the moment,
something I had been working on to try to deal with my fear of dying. I took in the air, the breeze, the moon, the lights, and the passersby.
We laughed and had easy conversation through dinner. After Chris paid the check, he walked over to pull out my chair, holding out his hand to help me up. Wow, I thought, I’m not
that weak … oh, wait, he’s just being a gentleman, the endangered species. It really was very sweet; I was just not used to it. As we headed back out onto 82nd Street, I tilted my head back and looked up at all the stars in the sky. I felt Chris’s hand rubbing my back, making me all kinds of tingly.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked, tilting his head in the same direction as mine.
“Just what a nice time I am having with you.” I turned to look at him with a smile.
“Me too,” he said.
He pulled me to him, pressing his body against mine and wrapping his arms around me. I put my arms around him, breathing in the scent of his cologne. I felt the sweet breeze blow through my hair and hoped Chris couldn’t see any of it blowing away. He pulled back from me just enough to kiss my cheek, then smiled and said, “So, you want to head back to my place for a little while?”
Here it is, I thought. The moment I’ve been dreading all night. I felt sad and pissed off at the same time. I wanted to spend more time with him. I wanted to go back home with him.
I wanted to cuddle up on the couch, kiss some more, and feel his arms around me. I wanted candlelight with Sarah McLachlan in the background. I longed to feel the desire between us.
I wanted to escape somehow and get lost in that moment with him on that street. I wanted to forget I had cancer. I didn’t want to ruin the night. I didn’t want to tell him.
“Yes, that would be nice.”
Chris grabbed my hand and led me up the block. Ten blocks never went by so quickly. I listened to our feet on the pavement and watched couples walk past us arm-in-arm and thought about how lucky they were. I wanted to be them, to be anyone but me.
When we reached the door, he looked at me, smiled, and then a quick kiss landed on my lips. He held the door open for me as I stepped into his apartment. It was a very small studio,
one big room with his bed next to the window. It could be quite the romantic spot where you could look out at the city lights at night.
He offered me a drink, which I declined. I sat down on the couch. A glance at his desk showed he was as obsessed with music as I was. The huge screen of his computer was full of MP3s.
“Wow, you do like music,” I said, squinting to see the screen better.
“Yeah, I like just about everything.”
“I always wished I had a better voice. I love to sing. As long as nobody is listening,” I said, looking down shyly.
“Well, what’s your favorite song right now? One you like to sing when you are alone in the shower.”
“I really like ‘Everything’ by Lifehouse.”
“I have that one.” He clicked through his list of MP3s, stopped at the Lifehouse song, and double-clicked. Before I knew it he was turning up the volume.
With that, he came over, sat next to me, and whispered in my ear, “Sing a little for me.”
“No, I can’t,” I whispered back.
“Yes, you can. You can’t sound worse than me. Just a little, come on.” I felt his arm making its way up my back again.
Somehow, without a second thought, I started singing. I couldn’t look at him. I was staring at a spot on the table, hoping he wasn’t covering his ears. It’s a slow song with points in the chorus that you can belt out. So I did. I couldn’t figure out how Chris was able to get that out of me. I never sang in front of anyone, ever. There was just something about him that made
me feel safe in that moment.
“That was good. I’ll never let you get out of doing karaoke now,” he said, jokingly. We both laughed.
“Thanks. I see a guitar over there. Can I hear you play?”
Asix-string was propped in the corner near the couch.
“Sure. I’ll strum a little for you.”
He played a little. As his strumming slowed down, I said, “You know, I also write poetry.” I must have been feeling confident after my mini-concert.
“Oh yeah? Can you remember one off the top of your head?” he asked.
“I think so. Why?”
“Here, write it down. I can put it to music.” He handed me
a pen and paper.
“Really? That would be so cool!” I took the pen, excited at the prospect of hearing my words set to music, and wrote out this poem:
Take my hand and let me show you what true love can be,
Take my hand and I will show you the sun shining on the sea,
Take my hand and don’t let go, let me show youmy heart,
It will tell you all you need to know,
And we shall never part.
I recited it out loud as I wrote down the words. He listened with intensity, as if he were writing the music in his head. And just like that, I watched his fingers strum the guitar strings as he began to sing my words. It was as if a dream was coming true. He had brought my words to life in a way I had never experienced. Tears welled up in my eyes. It was so sweet. He was so sweet. But the thoughts of sweetness were soon erased by a morbid question that popped into my head: Was this fulfillment of my wish happening because I was going to die? Damn it, there was the cancer ruining everything again.
Chris looked up at me as he finished his song. Noticing my tears, he asked, “Hey, hey, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing. I’m just overwhelmed hearing you sing my words.” It wasn’t a total lie.
We talked, he played the guitar and sang a little more, and before we knew it, a couple of hours had gone by. I started to get nervous. This was it: I needed to tell him. But Chris had
other ideas. He got up and walked to the bed, then called me over. There was a nice view of the city from the window, but I got the feeling that was not why he wanted me there. I walked
over and sat down on the bed. As he reached his hand up to touch my hair, I gently redirected it to my face and he leaned in and kissed me. I felt so sad and then so scared. But I had put off the big announcement long enough.
“I have something I need to tell you,” I said.
With a serious look, he responded, “What is it? Are you married?”
I chuckled a little as I said, “I wish it were something simple as that.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“There is really no easy way to say this.”
“Say what?” he demanded.
Then the words just flew out of my mouth: “I have breast cancer.”
With that, there was silence for what seemed like an eternity. He looked blankly at me. I quickly tried to fill in the blanks for him, rambling on about my surgery, the mastectomy, the
reconstruction, and the chemo treatments I had just started. That led up to the hair loss.
“Oh, my God! I am so sorry,” he said.
“That day we went to Central Park I was tired from all that walking because of my surgery. I was trying to be strong. I was putting off telling you because I just didn’t want to scare
I was sure I was saying all the wrong things, even though I know there was no right or wrong way to explain the whole mess.
“Are you scared?” he asked, with fear in his eyes.
“Of course I am. I don’t want to die.”
I guess mentioning the word die might be too heavy for someone who had been out with me only three times — but it was the truth, and I was trying to be honest with him, totally
honest, for once.
“You look scared now,” I said, cringing.
“No, I’m not.” He stared at the floor.
“Then you’re a good liar,” I said, trying to force a smile to lighten the mood.
But it didn’t work. I could see the disappointment in his face and a weird look in his eyes. The silence became painful. The awkwardness was palpable, worse than a really bad blind
In that moment, I realized that the way he saw me had changed. I went from being a girl he wanted to be with to one he felt sorry for.
IT WAS REALLY LATE at this point and the thought of a long drive back up to Rockland was very unappealing. I told Chris I was too tired to drive back. He offered to let me spend the night on his couch. I thanked him for letting me stay. The conversation had become so strained since the “C” talk, he couldn’t even look at me. Not directly in the eyes, anyway. It was like he was expecting me to break or to die right there in front of him. And you know what? It felt like that wasn’t far from the truth. I lay down on the couch and wrapped a blanket around me.
He sat down on the edge of his bed, and I wanted to lie there with him. It was my last chance.
“Can I lie next to you?” I asked, surprising even myself.
Maybe I wanted to sleep next to him to feel wanted, to feel close to a man, to feel like I fit in somewhere. Maybe I just wanted to escape the reality of what was happening to me.
“Of course you can,” he said, with a sad look on his face.
“Thank you for this. I am preapologizing now for any hair that I might leave on your pillow by the morning.”
“Um, okay …” I heard him say as I put my head down.
He put his arm around me. My last thought before I fell asleep was, Where do we go from here?
I woke up to bright sun in the window. I quickly reached up to feel if my hair was still there. Chris was already up. There was a ton of hair on his pillow and I was terribly embarrassed.
My scalp was really hurting. I knew it would be happening soon. I was leaving little bits of myself all over the place; today it was his apartment. I apologized for the hair and he told me
not to worry about it. The weird look on his face was a combination of pity and terror, I think. I imagined he was asking himself how he could have met the only young woman on the
Internet with cancer.
I gathered my things and told him I needed to get going. In a way I didn’t want to leave because I knew it was the last time I would see him. When we headed toward the door for our goodbye, I could see it coming a mile away. I could have written the dialogue. He walked over to me, took my hand, and told me that he really liked me, but he didn’t think he could handle this. I told him I understood, blah, blah, blah … as if I had already rehearsed it in my head. The truth was, I did understand, but a part of me was angry at him for bowing out.
ON THE WAY HOME, I almost missed the exit for the bridge. My mind was all screwed up. To top it off, I was resting my head in my hand, leaning my elbow on the car door, when I realized I
had a whole handful of hair in my hand. By the time I got back to my apartment, the shedding was out of control. I was going to have to vacuum the damn car. I had gone through quite a
few lint rollers in the past couple of weeks, trying to get hair off of my clothes, pillows, and furniture.
Once inside, I ran straight to the bathroom to assess the damage. I also really had to pee. When I pulled down my underpants, I wondered why there was hair all over the inside.
I hadn’t been told about that. Wow, I was getting a free Brazilian. Maybe, too, along with everything else, I wouldn’t have to shave my legs again for a while.
It had been a long ride and a long night. I needed a shower, but I wondered what it would do to my hair. I ran the shower until the water was steamy hot. I stepped in and backed up,
feeling the heat penetrate my tense shoulders. I looked down at my fake boob without a nipple and the scar across my belly. I was tired of waiting for the inevitable horror; I needed
to take some control. I put my head under the water, knowing what would happen, and tugged gently on my hair. Sure enough, I pulled it right out in clumps. Looking at the hair in
my hand, I thought I might go crazy. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I placed it neatly on the side of the tub. I laughed, saying out loud to myself, “Wow, I am literally pulling my hair
out!” It seemed as if it would never stop. When I was finally done, all I had was some peach fuzz on my head and a neat pile in the corner of the tub.
I didn’t want to get out of the shower because I didn’t want to confront the mirror. I stepped out and grabbed a towel. As I wrapped it around me, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror on the bathroom wall. It was like looking at another person. There was still a little peach fuzz scattered in attractive patches all over my head, which looked worse than complete baldness. I was stripped to the core somehow. Stripped of all the things that made me feel like a girl, the things that made me feel sexy. The more that was taken away, the less I recognized myself.
I started to cry. I feared I would never feel confident enough to leave my apartment again. In the bedroom I was faced with another mirror. My familiar reflection was now replaced with
that of a sick person. Losing my hair was going to be even harder than losing my boob because now the cancer was going to be obvious to the outside world. That was more than I could take. As I stared at my bald head, I wondered who was going to love me like this?