1. July 24th, 1996. I come into spontaneous existence and into my mother’s arms. My birth goes off without a hitch—my parents have learned from the disaster of my older brother’s. My mother is not delirious or drug-addled this time around. She looks at me clearly and feels love only grow inside her chest. I am born with a full head of black hair.
2. When sperm meets zygote, you gain 46 chromosomes, all telling your body what you will look like. Eyes, skin markings, hair colour: all is locked in from that first meeting. Most children are born with darker hair. From nine months to two and a half years, hair colour will lighten.
3. My hair has a mind of its own. It’s thick and bushy, continually getting tangled, nothing like my mother’s black silk. She brushes it in the morning, caught up in the joys of mother-daughter bonding. I sit on an old metal stool, curling my toes and trying not to cry while my mother attacks my hair the same way she attacks garden weeds in the summer—pain and annoyance swirl along the patterns of linoleum tiles.
4. Study Shows Majority of Women are Unhappy with Their Hair, an article by Michelle McKelvey. Up to 68% of women—aged 30 to 60—are unhappy with their hair. I think the age limit should be extended as I watch my long hair grow alongside my hatred of it.
5. Crazy hair day is a day of redemption. A chance to turn my most frustrating feature into something that is—at the very least—interesting. Even if it isn’t beautiful. I am in grade three and obsessed with Greek myths. I want to become Medusa. Sadly, my mother is away; my father takes her place as the household hairdresser. I can only watch as dreams, mythic in design, burn up under the yellow lights of our bathroom. When the ashes scatter, they reveal two simple braids—the most my father can do—stuffed with toy rubber snakes. Disappointment weighs down my tongue and slithers around my teeth, making it impossible for me to open my mouth and offer up any childish validation for him.
6. Cancer: The abnormal growth of cells without standard control of the body. Even at the microscopic level, life is about what you can control.
7. I am 14, in grade nine, and I have had enough. I have burned my fingers on curling irons, have suffocated my lungs with hair spray, have tried straightening, lightening, hair wax… nothing short of salt-spraying my hair with tears is enough. My hair is out of my control. When I ask my mother, she says “sure, it’s just hair.” We scheduled my appointment for that Wednesday. I feel the hairdresser pulling my hair back into a ponytail and cutting; years of frustrations fall away. My head bobs forward and then up from the force of the release. I can finally breathe.
8. Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women and is the second leading cause of death from cancer in women. In 2010, at least 23,300 women were diagnosed with breast cancer.
9. Mother tells us at the dinner table, precisely a week after my hair appointment. The first thing that blurts out of my mouth is: “What does this mean for me?” Somewhere between larynx, teeth, tongue, lips, words get confused. I have made myself look selfish. I can’t re-ask my question.
“Did you know? When we went last week, did you know?”
10. Hair is made up of a tough protein called keratin. Hair follicles anchor each strand into the skin, yet once the hair reaches the skin’s surface, the cells aren’t alive. Any hair strands you see are just dead cells, hanging on by the roots.
11. I walk into my mother’s workplace and am assaulted by “oohs” and “awes.” Her co-workers throw compliments at me and praise me for being such a good daughter. For supporting my mother, for paying homage to her with my keratin sacrifice. The weight that had fallen from my scalp weeks ago crawls back over my shoulders. Newly laden, I do not correct them. I am a good daughter.
12. Chemotherapy uses cytotoxic drugs to destroy cancer cells. Many women with breast cancer choose chemotherapy. It is a systemic therapy; the patient has to drive herself to the hospital once every three weeks. Some common side effects of the treatment: low blood cell count, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, and hair loss.
13. We live in a trailer house while our house on the farm is being renovated. It is cramped, with thin walls. I wake up one morning, not because of my alarm, but because I can hear my mother crying in the shower. Later that day, my mother schedules a hair appointment of her own. She smiles at me when she returns, still elegant with her new pixie cut. When people ask her about it, she laughs and says that “it’s just easier this way.”
14. Once treatment is completed, hair can start to grow back as early as two to three weeks. After a month, hair should start growing at its standard rate, around six inches per year. It recovers much faster than the patients.
15. Cultures across the globe value long hair. Some view it as a symbol of life, the free-flowing movement of long hair meant to visually represent one’s spirit. Others believe that it gives them strength—their long tendrils reach out into the universe, gathering energy.
16. My mother did not have the luxury of long hair when she was younger. Find any photo of her in Nana’s photobooks, and you will see her sporting a classic (and boyish) bowl cut. Nana just couldn’t be bothered to deal with long hair. Seeing as short hair suited everyone else in the family, it could suit my mother just fine as well. My mother will be known as “little moose” for all of her childhood. She dreams of having long hair. She practices braiding on the tail of her horse.
17. The history of braiding dates back to almost 3500 BCE. Very popular among women of different African tribes, braids served to identify a person’s tribe, age, marital status, wealth, power and religion. Braiding was and still is a social art. It is often done between mothers and daughters.
18. I stop cutting my hair when I first hear vomit hit the sides of a porcelain bowl. I think of little moose and decide that I miss my long hair, cantankerous as it was. I start to grow it out for graduation. When graduation finally comes, it is barely to my shoulders—but it is enough. Enough to twist it up into curls and pin it with starlight. When I get back from the salon, my mother looks at me and smiles. Seeing as she can no longer do my hair, she offers to do my nails instead. We sit at the kitchen table in the new house, a silence between us until my mother starts reminiscing. As she speaks, I finally begin to understand what people mean when they talk about playing dress-up with their mothers. The rest of the afternoon passes; my dad intimidates my escort while my mother snaps photos. Getting into my friend’s car, she whispers, “you look beautiful.” Looking back at her through the side mirror, I think I might agree.
19. Melanin is the chemical that makes up the pigment of hair and is found in the hair follicle. Most people start to see grey hairs in their 30’s or 40’s, though it can occur earlier due to stress. The year my mother got cancer, I was hit by a car, went to Quebec, and started high school. My mother still uses black box hair dye.
20. I am in the second year of culinary school and am surrounded by people with tattoos. I begin to have ideas, designs involving flowers and herbs and meaning. Then I get burned during class and am reminded of my low pain tolerance. When I check in with my mother during our weekly calls, I confess my dilemma. Her laugh is static-ridden over the phone as she suggests something less painful or permanent. “It’s just hair,” she reminds me. (That winter, amidst greys of city smog, I am newly christened with a halo of red framing my face; different colour but still long, still my mother’s hair).
21. A recurrence is when cancer comes back after treatment. It can happen weeks, months or even years after the original source was treated. My mother will live in its shadow for the next four years, popping pills.
22. I am twenty-two. The amount of changes life has thrown at me is starting to match the number of times I have changed my hair. Yet now, my hair is plain, the closest it has been to my childhood in probably a decade. I tie it back when I see my mother turn the corner, pulling up in a truck to my rented house. We spend the whole afternoon unloading couches and chairs, working together to make the roughly renovated place feel like home. Jokes and jibes are traded easily between us, braided into the sounds of the city in summer. When we finally let our hair down, we both glint in the fading light. Hers raven obsidian, mine, the gold found on top of freshly baked bread. We sit on the steps, sipping beers, luxuriating in the cooling of the day. In the middle of one sentence and the next, my mother tucks a stray piece of hair behind my ear. She smiles when I pause, letting me roll my eyes at her before I continue to talk about the year ahead. My voice floats around us, the two of us sit on our little woven raft of hope.
26. Although hair can grow up to six inches per year, the reality is that it all comes back to genetics. Ironically, breast cancer is the same. It can be explosive, consuming a body the same way a kitchen element consumes stray falling strands. Or it can be lethargic. Taking its time to braid itself into the essence of tissue over a period of another four years, going unnoticed while, for a moment, we think the world will fall apart.
(It does. We just didn't hear the soft unraveling until now. Hope is still there. But currently hard to hear over the sound of crying. The two of us sit in the car outside the imaging clinic. It was her mammogram today).
Date submitted: October 6, 2022
Date accepted: December 2, 2022