I realized I was really a grownup the day I went to buy a wig before losing my hair to chemotherapy.
Trying on wigs would have been a delight if I were five years old rummaging in my mother’s closet, stringing ruby beads around my neck, putting on her hat with the little veil. But I had reached the age where death was ubiquitous. You can only go forward from that knowledge.
I had Stage One breast cancer. Because of my relatively young age of 42, surgery followed by four rounds of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation was recommended—an ordeal that would take at least six months. Before the operation, the surgeon had warned me that a tube would be put down my throat to breathe for me.
I wanted it to breathe for me.
After my first round of chemo, I went shopping for a wig. The nurse wrote out a prescription for a “cranium prosthesis”—if that’s not scary, I don’t know what is. I went with my sister and her friend Frank, a hairstylist who would advise me on the right wig for my face. Frank has been doing the hair of wealthy Georgetown matrons for 20 years.
The “salon” was large and maze-like. The patrons tended to need wheelchairs and canes. Explaining to the receptionist that I was there for Hans alerted her that I was a cancer patient. She gushed over me and poured me a glass of water with lemon slices and tinkling ice from a pitcher. I thought how odd it was to have an appointment with a hairdresser when I’d soon have no hair.
Hans—a big, spiky-haired man—had a broad and reassuring smile. I could tell he knew that nothing was worse for a woman than being sandwiched between the pain of having cancer and the pain of going bald.
In the private “wig styling” area, counters were scattered with dummy heads wearing pageboys, long curls, or pilings of waves. Because I’d had only one chemo treatment, I was still able to push my hair into a hairnet, the kind that reminded me of waitresses in old-fashioned burger joints. Hans came out with an assortment of wigs, and I chose a couple to try on. From the wings, my sister and Frank approved and disapproved according to what style was imperfect enough to appear most natural.
Don’t let anyone tell you wigs are easy to wear. They’re full of bumps and inner contraptions that make you feel outfitted for a space ride. On Frank’s recommendation, I settled on a frosted up-do. I felt like a fugitive in disguise. When I put the wig back on its Styrofoam head, I wanted to salute it, or pet it like Lassie.
After buying the wig as well as a backup, I went to my sister’s house, where Frank cut my hair in a short-short style so I could get used to losing my hair more gradually. Sitting in my sister’s bathroom with locks of hair all around me, I realized he had just given me the best haircut I’d ever had.
“Looks smashing!” Frank said.
“But I won’t be able to keep it,” I replied. I looked in the mirror, wondering if this could really be me—laughing out loud.