We’ve been together for a long time. Sixty-two years, give or take.
I’ve loved you, hated you, despaired over you, despised you, and occasionally celebrated you.
I’ve worn you short, long, punk, brown, pink, mulberry, and more. Do you remember when we embraced the leopard look—spiky and brown with blonde tips?
Through all of this, I never imagined not having you. Throughout the angst-ridden years of my youth, my ever-shifting identities, I relied on you to tell myself and the world who I was.
How will I express that, how will I know myself, if you are no longer there?
Without you, I feel unclothed—a bit like those awful recurring dreams where I forget my concert clothes and walk onstage naked, hoping nobody will notice. But this is not a dream, and there is no chance nobody will notice. I hope you don’t mind that I shaved you down to the bare minimum instead of waiting for you to fall out. The bald patches would have felt like a “cancer patient” label. That’s not how I see myself, so why look like it?
When I hear that phrase, I picture someone frail, at death’s door perhaps, living on borrowed time. Someone whose life is on hold—or perhaps sent away for good—whose focus is unremittingly on illness.
I’m lucky. My cancer mostly allows me to live a full and varied life—with or without you. Our parting of the ways feels to me like a statement of optimism, not disease.
“Where is the optimism in dispensing with me?” I hear you say. I’m reminded of the Johari Window I learned at counselling college. It’s a way of looking at personal authenticity, and the goal is to widen the window labelled “known to self and others.”
In our (temporary) separation, I seem to be putting more of myself out into the world. Without you to hide behind, I have to be stronger, braver, and more honest than ever before. Pretence is no longer an option. It feels as if I am baring my soul to the world.
Scary? Perhaps. But when we are reunited, I will be a more complete human being than before we parted. You too, I think, will have changed. Will you return to me straight or curly? Grey or brown? Luxuriant or fine? What self will you have embraced? I’m excited, but not in a hurry, to find out.
Going out into the world without you is an acknowledgement of my vulnerability but also a statement of my strength. It’s a bit like splitting up with a much-loved partner. At first it seems impossible to function, but inevitably independence rises, like a phoenix, from the ashes.
I used to be terrified of losing you. I was terrified of cancer, too. Such a jumble of fears and insecurities! I’m glad you stuck around while I came to terms with the realities of illness. In fact, you picked a perfect time to leave—I can cope now.
Losing you is a small price to pay for feeling this good, so I hope my new drug is effective for a while. Do you remember reading a little book by Virginia Axline, Dibs in Search of Self? Do you remember the incredible feeling when Dibs emerged from his therapy a fully functioning, happy little boy? That’s what I’m hoping for us.
It seems that no matter how old you are, or how wise, there will always be more to learn about how you live in the world. Hair, I need to thank you for reminding me that I am always in the process of becoming—as are you, probably.
Goodbye for now, Hair. Look after yourself and come back shining.
Thanks for such a thoughtful letter. I miss you.
Of course I remember all our phases. I think I was a barometer for your mental health. When you were at your lowest point, you forgot all about me, and I suffered for that neglect: straggly, split ends, atrocious condition.
Remember the hairdresser who wrapped me around? It sounded so stupid but it did work. I looked better afterward—shinier, somehow more intentional. But however low you got, you always kept me clean. I was grateful for that. I lose my self-esteem when I’m dirty.
So here I am, just a genetic memory lodged somewhere in your scalp. I’m comforted that I’m still somehow with you, even though no one can see me. It’s hard to embrace my nothingness, my lack of physical manifestation, with any sort of pleasure.
I’m using the time to rethink myself a bit so that when we are reunited, I will indeed be your crowning glory rather than a vehicle for your self-searching. Like Axline’s little Dibs, I believe we can emerge from this as a contented, wise Self who feels secure and confident of her place in the world.
There are some things you can do for me. Even though you can’t see me, I still need nourishment—but not too much. Take care of your diet. I need all the food groups to thrive. When you were young, you lost the capacity to look after yourself or me. A diet of sugar and alcohol was not enough for either of us. And as for those cigarettes—I was always smelly and never felt truly clean. I have had more self-respect, and found it easier to love myself, since you stopped. I know it was hard, but so worth it.
Don’t become too ordinary. All the funky hairdos—even the awful ones—said something about your courage, your willingness to change. The more outrageous your “do,” the more insecure I knew you were. Even though I was sometimes embarrassed by the things you did with me, I loved that you carried on putting yourself out there. I’m glad you hate your wig. You can’t replace me that easily. The turbans are good—I feel cozy and somehow cherished when you wear them. But be brave and sometimes go out with a naked scalp. It can’t be more embarrassing than our leopard look.
You talk about being in the process of becoming. I want us to continue that right up to the end. Becoming is learning and we should never stop. Just because we are advancing in years, and I am grey, is no reason to just settle into a stagnant old age.
I’m looking forward to the next phase. I hope you’re not on this drug for too long because I want to return to share life with you—the good and the bad. We have much left to do together. Learn what you can without me—if you listen carefully, you might, on occasion, hear me whisper in your ear. I will most certainly come back shining.
Goodbye and take good care till I reappear,
We have so much to catch up on. I wish I could describe to you the wonderful sense of freedom I felt the first time I went to work without a turban. I was nervous and excited. But how silly—you were with me every step of the way, so you must know. I guess it was scary for you, too, going out in public for the first time in months.
You are still quite thin in patches. This scantiness does not come naturally to you, and I have such sympathy for you as you struggle to regain your former luxuriance. I love the shortness of you. You are carving out a new look for us that has nothing and everything to do with mental health. Nothing, because you’re in charge for now so our style is not a way of making a statement to the world, or trying to defy convention. Everything, because it takes supreme self-confidence—for both of us—to stride out into the world with so little by way of protection. Or camouflage.
Together, we are creating a new reality for ourselves. Looking back to that Johari Window, we have widened the “known to self and others” box to hitherto undreamed of dimensions. It feels good. More honest, and less lonely. When I hid so much of myself, there was always the possibility that if people knew the “real” me, they’d run for the hills. Now, the real me is out in the world every day and the important people are still here. So affirming.
Do you remember, just before you left, we spent a couple of weeks in a hospital looking like an apparition from hell? Then, too, the important people stuck around. It seems that love and friendship have little to do with looks, and everything to do with good heart and intentions.
Hair, I think now that you’re back, we will live differently. Our priorities have changed, our appreciation for each other has deepened, and I suspect that now we will have developed the ability to work cooperatively. I will undertake not to make decisions on your behalf without consultation and hopefully, you will promise not to let me down at crucial moments for no apparent reason.
Do you think “bad hair days” are a response to people not treating their hair as worthy of respect?
Hair, I hope you stay, but I understand that you may feel the need to leave again. Please know that some of the drugs you hate so much are necessary for our overall health and well-being. It’s not personal, and I won’t try to keep you if staying together starts to feel impossible for you. That’s not what friends do.
Looking forward to a close and kindly collaboration,