It’s no secret: I’m a writer. And since I’ve experienced cancer and treatments for half of my life, my writing has consistently circled back to these moments.
Posted here are glimpses of writings from when I was 13-15 in reflecting on when I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time, “strike 1.” They are not chronilogical or placed in any sort of that, just pieces that I wrote for papers for school or just in my own time.
At fourteen years old, my wig finally came off. The stiffness that suffocated my head, that encircled my scalp, the itchiness forever relieved. I fled from dignity and was freed from being occupied with my appearance. At fourteen, I never felt so free.
I was in my bed when I first noticed my hair was falling out. The doctors said that that was a likely side affect from the chemotherapy, the red kool-aide that slithered up my veins. How could a drug affect my hair? My beautiful, wild child hair. A blonde afro that sprouted from a biracial child. Hair that announced its presence to the world and demanded compliments while my shy, quiet girl self tried to persuade it to stay locked in braids. I was ashamed of my hair, so ashamed of it that I neglected it daily, refusing to wash or comb it. I remembered all of the times that I compared myself to other girls, their waterfalls of straight bronze and fine gold. I was ready to bargain with the drug: I would take back all times I was ashamed of my hair just to keep my unwanted puffs and tuffs.
But that night I slipped my hands through my jungle hair and weeded out the tuffs. I stared at the hair blankly, the tuff now resting peacefully in my palm.
“Mom,” I whispered as a brought my hand to her that held the wisps of hair, looking like it was my fault for breaking something so precious and beautiful. I cried.
And those were the first and last tears I promised I let myself shed.
“We are going to the beauty shop to see what they can do for your hair, a nice short hair-do that might make this go smoother,” mom said the next day. This. Why couldn’t she say it? I was balding at age thirteen. And why would I want a shorter hair cut? It would be coming out, whether it was short or long. That night when I laid in bed I promised myself I would bald beautifully, not whining like a forty year old man who begins to bald. But she was my mother, and I followed her word.
Miss Dorothy’s shop, The Hair Affair, was where my hair was celebrated for the past three years. My blonde hair belonged to this culture, was more suited for the African American woman wore it proudly. I would let her compliment it freely, forcefully weed the tangles, and mold into manageable hair.
“Hmmm, Donna. The girl’s got some gorgeous hair now. Hmm hmm hmm. Beautiful,” Miss Dorthy would say to my mother. Her petite frame covered in dark chocolate skin completely disguised the strength and artistry she held in her hands. She brushed, combed, washed, scrubbed, dried, combed, and brushed again, and all the while she chatted, talked, conversed, laughed and hollered until you thought her mouth must surely go dry. All of the shame I had stuffed into my hair had knotted and mangled it, unwilling to let go sue to the neglect and abuse I had fed it for so long.
“Hun, we’ve got to cut it all off now. It’s stuck. Mighty stuck. It’s not going anywhere,” she finally said after much time spent trying to untangle it. I knew that was her last option, her last option for any client, for hair is a treasure in her shop.
“Ok,” I whispered, thinking back and bargaining again with the drug, hating the drug for stripping me completely of my hair. With my grandmother’s wrinkled hands locked in mine, we saw the tuffs fall from the sky.
“Hmm. So strong, so strong. The Soward’s family strength is in that girl,” my grandmother hummed as she witnessed her granddaughter balding in front of her. And I brought the mirror to my face, trying to see and piece together the girl in the mirror. The strange girl with big blue pool eyes and the smoothest of surfaces on her head, a seemingly mismatched creation by God: bald and girl. But the girl in the mirror stared back, recognizing pieces of herself on the polar end of reality, and persuading her better half to gather strength to walk out the door of that shop. The girl in the mirror silently watched as I tied a brightly patterned bandana, my badge of courage.
We drove to the wig store the same evening. Row upon row of hair encircled me, pleading to try it on. I could finally have the longmane of straight bronze I had always wanted or be a shiny brilliant blonde. Each wig felt like a mask, an unwanted façade that whisked against my shoulders as I walked. With every look in the mirror it seemed painfully obvious that I wasn’t me, my true self. I would give anything for my crazy hair, appreciate it, embrace in its unique beauty, but the girl in the mirror was now again staring me in the face, knowing that I could and must brace my hair’s present status.
I did so by finally choosing a short, seemingly matronly style that parted down the middle and almost touched my shoulders. I treated it like a hat, wearing it out in public, feeling conscious that everyone could see that that was not my natural hairline.
The rest of the world though never knew. They saw my smile and positive attitude way before they even realized that I had a wig on. Some never even knew I wore one.
“I like your hair,” a guy commented once. I smiled.
Once the longest winter of chemo treatments ended, spring arrived with the growth of my new hair. How would it be? Curly? Straight? Brown? Blonde? Beautiful? The Perfect Hair that everyone always complimented? I waited and hoped like a child for Christmas morning. But when that Christmas morning did arrive, I did want to let go of my wig and embrace the new. The wig had become my source of comfort, of being accepted into society. I had to let go, and I was embarrassed. Embarrassed and anxious of the anticipated stares, I begged mother to let me stay home.
“Jenna. You are a cancer survivor. You have not ever let cancer keep you away from school, and here you are letting your image keep you from school,” my mom said.
I walked into that high school that day, accepted the stares, the whispers and I replied back with a smile. My smile was mirrored back and multiplied, embarrassment no longer lingering on the threads of my thoughts.
Today, the wig is a trophy in the hallway, clutching to a foam head. I pass by it when I am out on my way to school, rushing to the place where I was freed from self doubt and obsession of image. And then I see it, the caged animal with its coarse straight bristles. I smile, for I have tamed this beast, the beast that growled my imperfections and buried my self worth under its weavings. I pet my soft, curly bob on my head as my smile welcomes the new day.