I caught a glimpse of my tattered ponytail in the neon sign as I entered the barbershop, where I’d taken my son on many occasions. The door chimed as I walked in and the head barber waved.
“Jay isn’t in today,” he said.
“I know. I’ll take anybody who's available.”
He looked confused. “Is this for you?”
“Yes, yes, it is,” I whispered.
I sat in Jose’s chair. He was young, handsome. He smelled like last night’s tequila and good times. He smiled and asked, “What can I do for you?”
“Cut it all off. Please.”
I had just ruined Jose’s day. I was sorry. I was used to it. The “day ruiner” had become my new role. I sat tall, stoic. I was not going to be the pathetic woman who walked into the barbershop and sobbed. He told me that his aunt had breast cancer, too.
“Sorry to hear that,” I responded. “How’s she doing?”
Our eyes locked in the mirror. He felt awful and so did I.
“Sorry for your loss,” I replied.
The sound of the clippers removing the last bit of femininity attached to my scalp was like nails on a chalkboard. The cut felt like it lasted an eternity. I watched as my hair was reduced to debris that would be swept and thrown in the trash. He gave me a hand mirror so I could see his work. I didn’t know the woman looking back at me. She was bald, thin, and her eyes were sad. I thanked Jose and asked how much I owed him.
“There’s no charge,” he said. “I hope you’ll be ok.”
I smiled. “I hope so too.”
Most of us can fill volumes in a library with stories about our hair. All of the phases we’ve endured. The desire for what we’ve never had. If your hair is curly, you want to straighten it. If it’s straight, you find ways to make it wavy. It really is a phenomenon. Girls grow into women who define themselves by the crowning glory that we call hair.
For the first eight years of my son’s life he always knew his mommy to have long, healthy, hair. My appearance was consistent. He could look for me in a crowd and knew I was the one with the fantastically bouncy ponytail. I knew there was never going to be a “good” time to share my diagnosis with him.
So, one evening I sat him down and gave him my best version of a “don’t be scared mommy is going to be just fine” speech. I told him that we would both be dependent on the love and support of family and friends for the foreseeable future. He immediately burst into tears when he heard the word "cancer." I let him cry, and cry, and cry. When the tears finally subsided, as if it couldn’t get any worse, I also had to tell him that because of my treatment I was going to be bald. His dad, my then-husband, is bald.
So, I told him, “Mommy is going to be bald like daddy because of the strong medicine.” He unexpectedly smiled. It was a big, mischievous, eight-year-old boy smile.
“That’s funny mommy,” he said. We laughed and hugged. In that moment, I needed to believe that he was going to be okay.
The grueling chemo left my hair paper thin and brittle. Pulling out chunks of hair as I showered felt like a slow death, which was precisely why the Saturday before my second treatment, I came to the decision to have it all removed. I had passed on rockin’ wigs, it just wasn’t my thing. Somehow, they made me look like I was in the witness protection program. I did wear fancy, colorful scarves when we went out.
But at home there was no camouflage, I was bald. My son would look at me and say, “Mommy, when is your hair going to come back? I kind of miss it.”
I would hug him tightly and say, “I kind of miss it too.”
I’d catch him looking at me during my six months of baldness, as if he was willing for the hair to grow back. I wanted to shield him from the pain. I wanted things to be certain in both his world and mine. But I couldn’t make such promises. I could not guarantee whether I would “survive” this fight for my life, whether I’d be here to endure the messy teenage years alongside him. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to live. I wanted to laugh and not think about my mortality. I wanted to attend functions at my son’s school with my hair, and not with a perfectly tied head scarf; I wanted my clothes to fit again; I wanted no more nausea; I wanted no more tests, needles, or doctors. I wanted my ponytail back.
Time passed and over the course of the next 12 months I slowly became stronger, healthier. My hair began to grow back, one strand at a time. A little grayer than I had expected but it could’ve returned as a deep crimson or royal blue for all I cared. As my hair grew, so did my son’s smile. He was always looking at it, touching it, appreciating it.
One morning in particular he said, “Whoa mommy, your hair is coming back. A lot!” My hair was his connection to my wellness. Updates that my margins were clear or that my body responded to the chemo meant nothing to an eight-year-old. His mom had hair again. That had meaning. That resonated in a way that adult conversations and assurances never could. With the growth of my hair, his world was starting to feel safe again. As my body healed, my hair grew. As my spirit healed, my hair grew. As we healed as a family, my hair grew.
That eight-year-old little boy is now an eleven-year-old tween and I am approaching three years’ cancer free. Just the other day, during an unexpected exchange, my son looked at me and said, “Hey mom, nice ponytail.” In that moment, I realized that each strand of my hair represents a confirmation for him, that his mom is healthy. Each strand of hair soothes him and heals his wounds in a way that my hugs and reassurances never could.
I am grateful for this healing, and for second chances.
This article originally appeared in MotherWellMag.com.