Tuesday, 26 August 2014

40. Hallelujah: my hair has gone!

Never a dull moment. Take yesterday, for example.

Unexpectedly, yesterday turned out to be Head Shaving Day.

Let's start with the end result, so you don't have to scroll to the bottom trying to find the picture that answers the What does she look like now? question.

Yes, I'm afraid that's my hair is Owl wearing. Almost all of it.

 "I think I'll shave it all off the day after tomorrow," I said to my husband as we woke up.

"After I've had the next lot of chemo. I can't be doing with feeling rotten and having to cope with my hair falling out all over the place."

I was beginning to get fed up. Having abandoned the Easter Egg Cap after one night (too hot), my pillow was covered in hair. Persistent stuff, hair. Even after hoovering, shaking and washing the sheets, it clung on for dear life.

Shaving it off after chemo was Plan B. I'd already abandoned Plan A several days ago (shave it all off at the first sign of hair loss; possibly ask my lovely hairdresser to do it).

When I thought about it properly, I decided that both Plan A and Plan B should involve getting my best friend to come over and do the shaving. She, I reasoned, was eminently qualified, not only on account of having been my Best Friend for over three decades (moral support etc), but also because she kept her own head clean-shaven for the 17 years when she was a buddhist nun. If anyone knew how to shave a head, it was her.

It was a fine plan, until I stood in the shower and tried to wash my remaining hair.

It had been coming out in manageable quantities, perhaps 20 strands if I really tried to grab a handful. Then this happened, every time I put my hand to my head.

Oh dear...
It occurred to me that this is how I had imaged chemo-induced hair loss. Fistfuls of it. Let me tell you, that's what it was. I had to stop the shower five times for drain maintenance, as I kept finding myself ankle-deep in water that couldn't find its way past the hairy clumps. And every time I thought Let me get out of the shower, that's quite enough I needed to rinse off just a bit more to get the hair off my arms/chest/legs (told you, persistent stuff), only to find more and more head hair making its way south. I might as well have started painting the Forth Bridge.

So it was on to Plan C: Get It Off Now, Don't Care Who, Don't Care How!

We waited until the afternoon. Partly because I wanted to skype my younger daughter ("If you really want to be there," I told her, "I'll hang on until you are home tomorrow evening" - but she said it was OK to watch the before/during/after look by virtual means).

Trying to keep my hair on
Partly because we had planned to go out for lunch.

"We can cancel it," my husband said, but that seemed too much of a concession to cancer. Now that I am beginning to feel better, I've had quite enough of putting my life on hold.

The only concession I made was to wrap a scarf round my head, to prevent hair in my dish (and everyone else's dish, the rate it was going).

Returning home, it was time to answer the Who and How question. My best friend was too far away (Plans A and B had involved a certain amount of, well, planning. Plan C was rather lacking in the Planning Department).

In any case, we had already decided that putting a razor to my head, as she used to do, was not such a bright plan after all. Newly shaven heads are rather sensitive.

I remember the trouble she had when hers was shaven for the first time (not helped by her failure to wear a hat when first out in the sun). Apart from the minor scrapes, there was a bizarre oozing, like sticky yellow tree sap. No thank you. Millimeter it: that was the general consensus.

My best friend's ordination ceremony in 1988, having her head shaven for the first time

 Then my son came up with an innocent little question.

"Why don't you just pull it out?"

Pull it out?!

"Well, yes. Because if you cut it really really short, or shave it, it's still there, isn't it. It will still have to fall out, whatever is left of the roots."

After we had stopped laughing (plucked chickens sprang to mind), I began to wonder whether he had a point. In fact, I struggled to find anything wrong with his plan at. Tiny millimeter-long hair on the pillow was still, whatever way you looked at it, hair on the pillow. The fewer hairs, the better, no?

By good fortune, my younger daughter's godmother in Amsterdam has not only been a champion friend since our nursing training in the 1980s, but also a cancer nurse for all that time. She has seen thousands of patients through chemotherapy. So when I spoke to my younger daughter on the phone, I also spoke to my champion friend, with whom she is staying.

"Well," said the champion friend. "I have to say, I have never, ever heard of a patient going bald by pulling. But I do find that patients who millimeter their head in anticipation of hair loss often complain about their head being painful when you touch it. The hair roots are really sensitive."

I knew exactly what she meant. My hair roots had indeed been painful every time my hair moved, whether by stroking, by pulling hats on and off, or even just by taking off my T-shirt. If you've ever had long hair, you'll know what that is like. You've had it in a tight pony-tail all day long, and when you finally undo it and force you lovely locks in a new direction, there is a bit of a pulling sensation. Magnify that feeling, and there you go: the cancer patient effect.

So that settled it.

Pulling out as much hair as possible, followed by my husband putting the beard trimmer to the remaining strands - that was Plan C.

The champion friend, who is the most practical person I know, helpfully suggested that a wet hand would be best. Hair sticks to wet hands.

Back I went into the shower, this time not bothering to keep my arms/chest/legs hair-free. Soon, I resembled a furry bear. It was the most bizarre shower I have ever had, pulling out fistful after fistful of hair. It simply came away in my hands. By the time I had finished, there was enough of it to produce a wig, if not for me, then at least for Owl.

My hair (almost) down the drain
Was it distressing, you may ask? Strangely not. It felt liberating. That hair had become such a nuisance. More than that: it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that not many people will ever have (and if the champion friend is anything to go by, very few people in my position choose to do it). So rather than going Oh no! Look at this!, I found myself going Oh yes! Wow! Look at this!

Unfortunately for them, my husband/son/daughter missed out on these excitements. I did offer them the opportunity to give me a helping hand, but they declined with determination. Can't think why. Who else can say that they've plucked someone clean?

There was, however, still enough hair left for the beard trimmer, so there was another chance for them to get involved - I couldn't do that on my own. And this was definitely not a look worth keeping. It was like having aged 20 years in the space of 20 minutes.

The post-plucking look
My son isn't the hairdressing type, so he was out. My older daughter remained too horrified at the thought of me going bald, so she also counted herself out.

My husband, thankfully, was ready and willing. In fact he'd got out his old beard trimmer days ago, just in case. "Old" is the right word: it's well over a decade since he had a beard. In fact he'd been taking the thing apart repeatedly, cleaning and blowing and hoping for the best.

No good. My hair was just too long. The old beard trimmer didn't like it, and told us so. My poor husband had to keep stopping for more dismantling/cleaning/blowing. He had the worried look of a man who is picturing his wife with an unfashionable half-shaven look, knowing that he has himself to blame.

Oh dear. Will it work? Won't it work?
Daughter was called for, ignoring her reluctance. What was needed, clearly, was Very Short Hair in order to pacify the old beard trimmer.

I can't even call it Plan D. By this stage, we were improvising. There was no Plan.

Luckily, my older daughter is a positive and cheerful kind of person. Once she realised that this was an emergency, she set to the task with gusto.

She seemed to agree with me, wordlessly, that there was no point in being miserable about the inevitable. Why not enjoy this unique chance at playing hairdresser?

So there we were, getting out the portable radio (although we drew the line at trying to find realistic hairdresser music. It was Classic FM instead).

"Been anywhere nice on holiday lately?" we asked each other.

It did the trick. After she had finished, the old beard trimmer grudgingly did its job. And I had my third shower of the day.

Believe me: I felt elated.

Don't ask me why. Perhaps it was sheer relief at being so gloriously released from my Hairy Situation. It was six days since I first noticed that my hair was loosening. It had been OK, but it was enough. I had clearly needed that period of time to make the mental transition towards being bald.

(I am so glad I had that pixie cut. It would have been a nightmare to go through all this with anything but short hair. It also helped me to adapt to the shorter-shorter-gone look in the mirror, to the extent that I now look at pictures of myself pre-pixie-cut and find my abundance of hair almost unreal.)

My happy shower was also, I think, due to relief that I had finally crossed this hurdle - and to my pleasant surprise, I found that I really didn't mind it. From here, the only way is up. I thought I was going to cry with the release of emotion, but what came out was not sobbing but singing. Trouble was, I couldn't find a song to suit the occasion.

Then, just as I stepped out of the shower feeling beautifully clean and smooth, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus burst forth from the radio. As I turned up the sound as high as it would go and sang along, I realised that this was the perfect song to match my mood. Hallelujah.

Later, I found another reason for my unexpected happiness. I stuck my head round my son's bedroom door, to show him the new look.

"What?" he said, in that way only teenagers can manage.

"Look," I said, pointing at my head.

"Well yes I know, but what is it?" he repeated, in a What do you want sort of voice. Why disturb him if I have nothing to ask him and nothing of interest to say?

And that, I thought with a jolt, is exactly it. He didn't find my shaven head note-worthy, because I had already told him about it, and it didn't matter. It didn't stop him seeing Me, his mother.

The reason I am happy is because when I look in the mirror, I can see it too. Me. I'm still the same. 

Moreover, I have got used to the idea of being (and now looking like) a cancer patient. I think my soul has caught up. That is cause for happiness, indeed.

Just for the record: I really did pluck most of myself clean. The small cluster of swept-up hair on the bathroom floor paled into insignificance compared to the heap around the plughole.

Now, back to Owl. Might a wig, made of my hair, be good enough for the NHS catalogue? Is there anything similar? I went to the online version. The closest one I found was Elegance.

An NHS wig called Elegance

But we are not in need of Elegance. As I went to bed last night, I suddenly thought of the perfect name for my departed hair.


Owl wearing Hallelujah

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