My younger sister, Em, and I pulled into Walmart’s parking lot at 10 p.m. I’d never been to a department store after dark, but in Chesterfield, a suburb outside of St. Louis, Walmart was the only place open.
“Come on,” I said, pulling the key from the ignition. I unclicked my seatbelt and opened the door. My throat constricted in the freezing air. “Come on,” I repeated.
Em followed because that’s what needed to happen. When Mom got diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer a couple of weeks ago, it made sense that I would take the lead. My siblings and I had our own personalities, which meant the grief revealed itself differently.
As a child, Em was full of spunk and defiance. She would run away from home and laugh with a full belly of air. Even though she was two years younger than me, her outgoing spirit had always been my quiet self’s protective shield.
Somewhere in high school, Em’s voice became muted. Depression smothered her spark and she dissolved into a pile of angry, smoldering embers. Depression followed her into her freshman year of college, and when three months into the school year, the call about Mom came, even the smoldering embers were stamped out. The news was too heavy. Em became a disconnected shell.
KJ, my older brother, held a different role in this process. Being in medical school, he was burdened with our family’s questions.
He came home for Mom’s double mastectomy a month earlier. I sat beside him in the waiting room. Each time the surgeon rang with an update, I watched Dad pick up and hand KJ the receiver. KJ appeared to take the responsibility in stride, but the bags beneath his eyes suggested that even he — our family’s consistent overachiever — had a limit.
“I think our family forgets that she’s my mom too,” KJ told me on the drive home from the surgery.
At twenty-one, I was still the child whose quiet demeanor christened me with the ability to mediate and caretake. Mom called me first after the doctor told her the mammogram looked abnormal. At the time, I was walking into an appointment at the treatment center for eating disorders I had been attending. Over the last two years, I’d been to treatment for my anorexia three times.
I took the phone call while signing my name on the group therapy attendance list. The room was filled with plush couches, a sea of eating disorder patients, and therapists in purple lanyards. No one knew the content of my phone conversation.
“They think it’s cancer,” Mom said.
My body shook throughout the call, but even in stressful situations, I never broke. I kept things inside. Rather than show my emotions, I starved away my pain. My eating disorder gave me a false sense of control. Treatment was teaching me how to show up for myself, but Mom’s health compelled me to show up for her instead.
Em and I hurried inside and wandered the cosmetics section, pacing the aisles, scanning the shelves for our desperate nighttime purchase: hair clippers. It took 10 minutes to locate the clippers because neither of us wanted to ask for assistance. Interacting with anyone uninvolved in our family’s situation was a painful reminder that life was continuing. We didn’t need those reminders.
I found the clippers on the bottom shelf of the aisle lined with men’s shampoo bottles.
Em and I folded our arms and stared at the options.
“Which one do we pick?” Em asked.
I shrugged and took out my phone, googling which hair-clipper was best when shaving your mom’s head. But my eyes got blurry, and I couldn’t register the information the internet provided.
“I guess it doesn’t matter. All the hair will be gone in a couple of days,” I said.
Em agreed with me. We decided on the Wahl Color Pro Complete Hair Cutting Kit for $22.49. The price was more reasonable than the Andis or Oster brands. It was the clipper I’d pick if I were shaving my head.
We walked to the self-checkout and got in line behind the rest of the nighttime Walmart scavengers. I clutched the hair clipper tightly against my chest. The registers beeped with the items of the customers ahead of us. Tampons. Cases of beer. Oreos. A blender. Bathroom towels.
Em and I stepped up. Scan, beep, pay. I placed the hair clipper in a plastic bag and took the receipt.
After Walmart, Em and I pulled into the driveway of our childhood home in St. Louis. The house was the same. Same worn leather living-room couch, same rotting swing set in the yard, same lavender detergent wafting from the washing machine. But the familiarity hurt as it highlighted our family’s uncertainty.
Em and I walked upstairs to find Mom in my parents’ bathroom. She was sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her hands folded and her leg bouncing up and down. She was thinner and paler than I’d ever seen her.
On the counter were clumps of her long, strawberry-blonde hair. It had been 15 days since she started chemotherapy. The doctor said her hair would start to fall out 10 to 20 days after the first treatment. His prediction was correct. There was now a bald spot on Mom’s scalp, a little round speck of white skin just above her left ear.
An hour earlier, Mom had walked into my bedroom, wrapped in her gray robe, clutching clumps of wet, shriveled hair in her palm. She held her hand out and, together, we stared at the evidence. We stared and didn’t say anything. The hair looked like a dead mouse. A rodent that escaped from her scalp.
“I want you to shave it today,” Mom told me.
“My head. I’ve read several forums. It’s better for the hair to be short before it all falls out.”
“You want me to do it?”
Earlier, my agreement felt easy, but now that I was standing in the bathroom, holding the box of clippers, I could feel my heart pounding with anxiety.
I began fighting with the clipper’s packaging, pulling at the cardboard and plastic, destroying the white box and informative images as I ripped the box in two. While I struggled with the clippers, Em went to get a chair for Mom. Mom returned to sitting on the side of the tub with her leg bouncing, staring into the distance. Eventually, the box broke open. The clipper, guards, and instructions crashed onto the counter.
I scanned the instructions with glazed-over eyes, not really reading, just doing something that would make it look like I understood. I plugged in the hair clipper and slid on one of the many guards. To test the clipper, I swiped it back and forth across my forearm. Within minutes, my right arm was bald. I rubbed my hand up and down the naked skin.
Em brought in one of the hard, wooden chairs from the kitchen. I told her to lay down a towel from the wooden bench we never opened.
Em hesitated before lifting the bench’s heavy lid. She shook out a tattered pink towel and dust danced through the bathroom’s lights. She placed the towel on the tan tile floor with the chair on top. Mom sat down. I glanced at Mom. The bags underneath her eyes were gray and deep.
“I’ve got the handle on it,” I said, even though I didn’t. I didn’t want to keep Mom up. She had barely slept the night before. The chemotherapy made her sick, and she was vomiting the entire night.
“We need music,” Mom said.
Em and I agreed.
“What do you want to listen to?” she asked Mom.
“Nothing sad,” Mom said. “I don’t want this to be sad.”
Em and I paused while Mom thought.
“Led Zeppelin,” she said.
“Led Zeppelin,” I repeated while I searched on Spotify for “Kashmir,” Mom’s favorite. I pressed play.
“Louder,” Mom requested.
I turned the volume louder.
“Louder!” she demanded.
I turned the speaker as loud as it could go, and the music transformed the three of us into a conversational mosh pit. Words were useless. Rock music filled the space.
“Kashmir” came to an end, and I started Physical Graffiti from the beginning. With “Custard Pie” echoing off the tile floor, I turned to look at Mom. She was sitting erect in the wooden chair, staring at herself in the mirror. Mom’s hair fell two inches below her shoulders. This was the style she’d had my whole life. Long with a few wispy bangs. I wanted to reach out and brush my hands through her soft hair, through the memories, through my childhood.
I shook the grief from my mind. This was not the time to overthink. I read online that it’s best to trim long hair into a bob before shaving the head.
“Do you have scissors?” I shouted over the music.
“Dad does! Look in his cabinet!” Mom shouted back.
I put down the clipper and searched inside Dad’s cabinet for shears. As usual, he was traveling for work. All his things were there, but he was missing. He was an elusive being whose presence was there and not. KJ was similar — away for medical school and distant, yet again. The males were invisible generals of the family while the women were the troops on the ground.
I found the scissors and closed the cabinet. I stood up and faced Mom while Em kept quiet, escaping the moment by falling into her mind. My eyes met Mom’s in the mirror. I’d been aware my whole life of how similar we looked. I’d look at old photos of Mom, and my first question was, “Is that you or me?” We blended into one another, and I came to know myself by observing Mom. We talked with the same apologetic tone, a whisper as if we’d rather not take up any space. We were the most alike of anyone in the family. I couldn’t pull away like Em. I couldn’t be in another city like Dad or KJ. I was right there, holding the scissors.
I held up the scissors and made the first cut. Chhooooppppp. The slice of the blade was harsh. It made my heart pound even faster. I held the unattached clump of Mom’s hair in my hands. I cradled it, unable to drop it to the ground, unwilling to throw it away.
“Em, can you go get a plastic baggie?” I shouted.
“Why?” Em seemed annoyed.
“I’m not throwing away Mom’s hair.”
Em sighed and got up. I remained still, holding the hair in my wrinkled palm. I stared at the hundreds of individual strands.
“Here.” Em walked back in and handed me the bag.
I took it and slid the hair inside. My movements were methodical as if the hair was crystal and the locks could be easily broken. They couldn’t be broken, but they could be lost. And losing any strand of hair felt like losing a piece of Mom and the way things used to be.
After each cut, I placed the hair gently into the baggie. Chop, cradle, save. This became the choreography with which Mom and I danced.
Mom was left with an uneven and terrible pixie when I was done with the scissors. She looked in the mirror and smiled. It was a heavy smile. The kind you give when you know you have no other choice. I smiled back.
After the scissors and the preservation of Mom’s hair, I clicked on the razor. It hummed alive. The vibration itched my palm.
“Ready?” I shouted to Mom over the music.
I buzzed the hair down as close to her scalp as I could manage. I buzzed and buzzed until there was nothing else I could get to. Still uneven but cropped closer to the scalp, Mom looked at herself in the mirror. This time she nodded. A resignation as to how things had to go. An acceptance. I nodded back.
Then she said, “I need a milkshake.”
Mom stood up from the chair and dusted the hair clippings from her lap. Em followed her out of the room. I stayed, swept up the little pieces of hair, and zipped them inside the plastic baggie.
Five months later, I sat on my bedroom floor, happy to be in my own apartment and guilty for being happy to be in my apartment.
For the last five months, I had been flying home to St. Louis every third week to accompany Mom to her chemotherapy treatments. The trips were both exhausting and relieving. Exhausting in the way it demanded I show up for Mom with empathy and patience, over and over again. Relieving in the way it gave me someone else to pour my care into and distracted me from my therapist’s lectures on the importance of showing up for myself.
But caring for Mom was a necessary distraction on which I could build a makeshift foundation for my recovery. I could get better for her instead of fighting to find motivation within myself. This reasoning became a cracked and weak foundation, but I managed to balance on it and find a margin of healing along the way.
As I recovered from my eating disorder, my body grew soft, while Mom’s body faded away. Her collarbone stuck out, and her pants sagged around her stick-like thighs. She was cold. Her fingernails broke off. Her left arm struggled to regain mobility after her surgery. When I looked at Mom and then looked at myself, I didn’t see the sameness of a few months ago. I was plump, rosy, and alive. Mom was pale, cold, and disintegrating.
I felt a divide forming between Mom and me, which threatened to demolish the foundation I was standing on. I wanted to be close to Mom. I wanted to run back toward our sameness. And I felt that with each bite of food, I was pulling my body further away. But my increasing health eased Mom’s worries, so I learned to operate despite the painful tearing it took to be separate from Mom. I let myself gain weight and rejoin the living because it gave Mom hope that she’d do the same.
With my recovery came the ability to return to my junior year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I had one week before the spring semester ended, and the final project critiques were approaching. I felt split between two worlds. The world of school, art, and my twenties, and the world of caretaker and family comforter. I felt relieved to create my projects because the work allowed me to focus on my life in Chicago and tune out the noise accompanying Mom’s illness.
The large, gallon-sized plastic bag filled with Mom’s hair rested in my closet in Chicago, tucked underneath a pile of thick blanket scarves. Each time I went to grab a jacket or dress from a hanger and caught a glimpse of the dusty bag on the shelf, I felt a crushing grief. The idea of Mom’s hair piled away in the corners of my forgotten belongings was haunting, and I began having nightmares in which the hair begged me for a home. So, when my writing class gave me an open prompt for my final where the only requirement was to use writing and another medium, I decided to incorporate the hair.
I took the bag out of the closet and placed it in the middle of my bedroom floor along with the rest of my supplies — a needle and thread, a lace pillow, one bag of hair, three towels, a bottle of hairspray, 20 sticks of hot glue, a hot glue gun, and a blow dryer.
I opened the plastic bag and inhaled the scent of Mom. Even after months in the baggie, the smell of Loreal hairspray jumped out of the plastic and ran through my nostrils. The hint of the White Diamond perfume smelled like our childhood hugs. The faint musk of the outdoors brought back our afternoon drives blasting David Bowie with the windows rolled down.
As I collected the strands of her long hair, taped them to the wall, braided them together, and sewed them into the lace, flashes of Mom’s bald head and shrinking body attempted to overtake those happy memories. I shook away the images as tears escaped down my freckled cheeks. The disease was the present, but I was creating a time capsule for how things used to be.
As I created the pillow, I didn’t realize how much I would someday long to return to that space in time. When the cancer was stage 3, when the doctors talked of remission, when the prognosis was hopeful rather than a fight for more time. I didn’t understand the painful obstacle course of ongoing grief looming on the horizon. I didn’t know I would be required for years to ride a rollercoaster of good and bad news, ups and downs, tears and cries of joy. I didn’t know that the treatment process for a terminal diagnosis was one long walk of blind faith and trust in unanswered questions. I didn’t know yet because it was a process that needed to be lived to be understood.
So instead, I sat on the floor in my bedroom and wove each strand of braided hair in a circular pattern, a spiral where time never stopped existing. The process was meditative. I got lost in the movements. Swallowed in the simplicity of braiding and sewing, braiding and sewing.
This act of preservation became my way of mourning without me knowing that this was, in fact, a way of mourning. Years later, I would come to find out that in Victorian England, those mourning loved ones transformed the hair of the dead into jewelry. While I didn’t make jewelry, I did, unknowingly, find myself pulled towards this ritual of remembrance—hair as a way of preserving memories.
The pillow would eventually become a sacred object, accompanying me from apartment to apartment as I moved across state lines, settled into new cities. With the pillow, Mom’s hair remained constant: same smell, same color, same texture. A comforting time capsule for the way things used to be.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Orin Zebest/Flickr Creative Commons