Western Regional Blog – BC, YK, AB, NWT and Nunavut
By SUSAN GUBAR
The targeted cancer drug extending my life is killing my hair. Especially at the top of my head, a beige scalp gleams through sparse black and white wires. For obvious reasons, I’m not complaining.
During chemo, when I lost my hair before, I resorted to scarves and hats, assuming it would grow back. But now I need to continue taking the experimental pills in a clinical trial and therefore suspect that I will continue to lose, rather than regain, hair.
To my eyes, male-pattern baldness looks worse (on me) than totally-bald cancer patient mindfully contemplating her mortality like a Buddhist nun. Not so to my haircutter. When I gave her a choice between President Obama and Captain Jean Luc Picard at my last appointment, she chose the President, albeit with a receding hairline.
The vast majority of people in cancer treatment suffer from an injured body and an injured body image. Baldness but also scars, lopsidedness, weight gain or loss, patches, rashes, prosthetic devices, output bags and ports function like billboards. Some courageous patients determine to expose themselves publicly in order to witness and protest the epidemic; others become agoraphobic, unwilling to leave home. Unfortunately, I dwell in the latter category.
What wouldn’t I give now for the hair that drove me crazy in my teens? Thick and kinky, it led me to sleep with huge plastic rollers. To make it look like Cher’s, I would spend hours blow drying or ironing it or using chemicals to straighten it — which would work until the first inkling of humidity turned me into the Bride of Frankenstein. In my 50s, I finally relinquished Cher for a cropped Halle Berry, not that anyone would have discerned any resemblance whatsoever.
Maybe the dream of moveable hair, crazed though it was, could rescue me, I determined as I phoned my friend Alexandra, a costume designer, for a date the next day.
We drove to the only store in our small town that sells wigs. Its jokey name, though potentially objectionable to Native Americans, seemed a harbinger of moveable hair: The Wig Wam. Once inside the rickety house, we were greeted by Charlotte, the 80-something owner, who ushered us into an enclosed porch.
After I took off my hat and Charlotte tousled what little hair I had, she assured me that I did not need to shave my head, wash the wig or do anything except — at this moment she grabbed her own hair and pulled it off her head — wear it and stay away from hot ovens.
Why not have fun with this, Alex immediately proposed, bringing me a black shoulder-length mop fringed with red tips — perfect if I were auditioning for a movie version of “The Inferno.” But Charlotte firmly placed a short silver mane on my head, explaining that there was a woman who sat behind her in church who always tugged on the hair at the nape of her neck, to assure herself it was not real.
If realism was the point, the synthetic wig was a dud. It looked like a rug, no question. But what a rug! Imagine Meg Ryan in her late 60s. It was definitely moveable hair: moveable bangs, moveable flip in the back, and moveable shaggy sides that could be partly tucked behind the ears and partly smoothed down before the ears against my cheeks.
For days afterward it sat in the bathroom atop a phrenology bust that my husband donated from his study. The head’s scalp was divided into sections with letters and numbers so that 19th-century scientists could hazard guesses about real brains to prove that women of all races and all men except whites were endowed by their creator with alienable rights.
Getting used to two faces was not easy. Without the wig I look like a sickly Jewish man. But with the wig I am a vibrant, if older, shiksa who could toss her moveable hair at any country club longingly visited by a Philip Roth protagonist. (I should add that in my family the Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman is spoken with appreciation, not opprobrium.)
The shiksa’s name is Sally. Sally draws on eyebrows, while I do not. Sally primps before the mirror, though I do not. Sally’s head is generally itchy, whereas mine is not.
Ensconced in some free-floating anxiety about duplicity, I’m not trying to fool anyone, I assure myself. I swear that I am not attempting to pass. I won’t be her — I mean, I won’t wear it — all the time. Instead, I’ll let her — I’ll let it — help me get through select occasions. Still, the suspicion persists.
Maybe I need my head examined, but ever since Meg Ryan was spotted at a coffee shop in town, I expect that someone will come up to Sally in the supermarket to ask for her autograph. Walking down the aisles, I decide to choose ingredients to cook something on the stove top (not in the oven) that Sally might enjoy. I’ll have what she’s having.