This is not a story about my hair; but it starts there.
It had been eight months since my last chemotherapy session and my short hair was as curly as Little Orphan Annie though the color was far different. This phenomenon, often referred to as chemo curl, is common post-treatment because the chemicals damage the hair follicles and the result is curly hair. Apparently, the follicles should heal within about two years and hair will then begin to grow in straighter. We’ll see.
I wasn’t even planning on getting a haircut. After being bald, the thought of cutting my hard-earned locks felt counter-productive and almost like a betrayal. Those hairs had worked SO hard to get there.
So, I held off for about five months after it first appeared, praying that the weight of longer hair would magically help straighten it, or at the very least, soften the curl. But in reality, I would walk outside into the humid air and it would spring up and out looking like a Chia pet.
Between Covid and cancer and just plain stalling, it had been 21 months since my last haircut and I needed to do a little sleuthing to locate my previous hairstylist. I discovered that she had moved to a high-end salon a few miles away. I didn’t care though. If it was going to cost more, as the old television advertisement used to say “I’m worth it.” This is change number 27 after dealing with cancer. I am guilt-free now on spending money on myself and paying for a little pampering.
I arrived for my appointment. I probably need to clarify that before I moved south, my old hairstylist worked in a salon a couple of days a week and the rest of her appointments were in her home in the basement. It was half the cost and totally worth it. I stayed there 15 years. I’m a low maintenance kind of girl.
When I walk into the new-to-me salon, another woman walks in behind me and the employee at the desk immediately says “Mrs. Smith, hello. I will go get your champagne” and the woman nods.
“Oh boy” is all I can think.
I sit in the chair and exchange hellos with Mary (this is not her real name.) After we move through a synopsis of my illness and the business of how I wanted my hair cut, I ask what is new with her.
“Well, my husband and I have become foster parents” she shared.
“Wow” I reply “that is really a wonderful thing; good for you! How long have you been doing this?”
She smiled and said “Well actually, we just became foster parents a couple of weeks ago because we needed to go through the training first, so it’s all new. We had an eight-year-old girl placed with us and within 48 hours, the Department of Children and Families had a baby boy for us too. They asked if we could take the older brother of the baby as well, but three children sounded like a lot to begin with, so now they are looking for a home which will take both boys so they can keep the brothers together.”
“And, it’s going well” she continued. “Just a few days ago, Chloe (not her real name) asked if we could adopt her, and I just hugged her, it was such a sweet compliment. I told her that the program she is part of is a wonderful way to give children a home full of love while their parents work towards that very same thing.”
Apparently, dad is gone and mom has drug issues, and although Chloe stayed with her grandmother for a while, the grandmother said she couldn’t do it any longer.
Mary had everything planned out from her work schedule, the day care down the street (which is paid for by DCF) the school she would attend and with Chloe’s birthday coming up, they were going to the zoo. It sounded almost seamless.
Mary has to be in her 30’s and has never discussed children, so I don’t think she has any of her own. She has a deep faith though and I think it is important to her and her husband to give and help in this way.
When she is done, I am very pleased with my new haircut. It actually has brought out more white in the front which is pretty. The rest is salt and pepper. I glance in the rearview mirror a couple of times on my way home and smile.
It’s not quite four weeks later, but I feel the menacing curl already advancing. I schedule to see Mary again and ask how everything is going.
I notice immediately that her demeanor has changed. She seems tired and down. “Well, I can’t go through another night like last night I know that” she starts.
“What happened?” I ask with concern.
“Well, Chloe had a meltdown and it lasted hours. She screamed so hard, it made her throw up. She hates being told what to do and she did NOT want to go to bed.”
“I am so sorry. Do they train you for situations like this?” I asked.
“Yes” she replied “but in that moment, all training goes out the window, it was like a shockwave hitting me feeling how angry she was. She was crying and screaming and wouldn’t stop. She does see a therapist once a week to work on these tantrums. I did text him so he knows some of the details. And yes, I could have called the case worker, but she is really busy with so many cases…” and her voice trails off, her mind clearly on the previous night.
Then, she continued. “I guess I don’t want to call her because I don’t want to give up on Chloe. I just feel like her parents abandoned her; her grandmother abandoned her. I don’t want to abandon her too.”
I interject “did she do this with her grandmother?” and Mary responded “yes, it is why she gave her up.”
“Then, in the morning, Chloe was reading a book, which is something she hates to do. I’m always trying to get her to read and this was her way of saying “I know I was bad last night, I’m sorry.”
I rack my brain on strategies I used with my own son to share with her. Not only could I not remember any, but in truth, it was probably not a good idea to offer suggestions anyway. This young girl has seen trauma and needs to be under professional care. Incidentally, Mary still has the baby boy.
When I glance up and catch Mary’s face in the mirror, I see uncertainty, even a look of failure and I want to tell her so many things. I want to tell her that her heart is in the exact right place. How could she ever think she’s failing when she’s offering her life and love like that? I want to explain how patient and caring she is, absorbing enormous stress and anger from a child she barely knows. Or, reminding her of her own strength because she’s unwilling to give up trying. Her contributions are enormous and will have positive ripple effects for years to come.
Looking back at myself in the mirror this time, I understand that she has made me feel better about how I look and how I feel and I want to do the same for her. She is doing an extraordinary thing and that is what I say. I also say that I will be back soon and ready to listen and talk if that is helpful.
Although I know that this is her journey, I also know that it’s a gift to feel support from others you encounter along the way.