I began sheltering in place long before the virus, the day I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At fifty-four, I went from being an active, organic food-eating, open water-swimming, yoga-loving person who rarely had occasion to go to the doctor, to someone requiring a myriad of medications, appointments, and hospital visits.
It started after a swim in the San Francisco Bay. The waters were warm by bay standards—sixty degrees—and the current calm. It was perfect, except that when I got home, I felt a tenderness under my arm. I gently explored the area with my fingertips and came across something round and firm. Two biopsies later, I learned I had lymphoma. It wasn’t the indolent or slow-progressing type; it was the aggressive version. The kind that required multi-night hospital stays in order to administer a continuous four-day chemo drip.
After each treatment, my wife, Susan, brought me home and we sheltered in place. It took a while to get used to this way of life—scrubbing fruits and vegetables free of bacteria, constantly washing my hands, giving friends virtual hugs instead of real ones. And losing my hair. Well, technically I didn’t lose it so much as I took it off before I lost it.
I sat on the back deck of our Oakland home while Susan circled me with hair clippers. Batches of the salt and pepper hair dropped onto the newspaper. I’ve had all kinds of short styles, especially in my younger dyke days—bleached and spiky, buzzed on the sides and back—but this was by far the shortest. My hand moved across the stubble as I discovered dips and contours I had never felt before.
It didn’t last. Two weeks after starting chemotherapy, tiny hairs began dropping into the sink. The places where I still had hair were thinning too. A month later I was bald.
I thought about getting a wig, a neon pink bob maybe, but something always stopped me. I wanted to open to the experiences lymphoma was giving me and follow my body’s lead. Every morning I donned a 1940s style men’s pork pie hat instead. I felt like an old school gangster or a jazz musician back in the day.
But going bald wasn’t always easy.
The world isn’t used to seeing bald women. Men, on the other hand, have full permission. It’s a look. It’s handsome. Fashionable even. Not so for a woman. I got plenty of stares anytime I took off my hat. Cancer-related baldness shows differently. There’s no shadow of imminent hair beneath the skin. No darkness to signal that hair could grow if allowed to. It’s paler, more vulnerable looking.
I gradually got used to having no hair. It was me. Honest and real. Still, I never completely shook off my self-consciousness. Sometimes I kept my hat on when my head felt overheated because I didn’t want to deal with how people might respond. I never left the house without my hat.
Wigs are an individual decision, especially if you’re a woman. I understand. Cancer puts us through so much, if having a wig brings lightness or helps you feel good, then why not? I wasn’t always a hundred percent comfortable with my baldness but it was still the right decision for me. My truth.
Until it wasn’t. Until I found myself inside a wig shop in downtown Oakland.
With a friend in tow, I headed past the extensions and eyelash products to the back where a small collection of Afro and straight-haired wigs sat on white Styrofoam heads. I was betraying my baldness, the stance I had lived and believed in for nearly six months. I was about to turn fifty-five and was almost done with chemo. I needed to break out.
I scanned the options before me. There was a full and cascading Bonnie Raitt style wig and a short copper Tina Turner. Then I spotted a crimson rocker wig with disheveled bangs. I put it on and was transformed. It didn’t look anything like my real hair and yet it felt so me.
I bought it and wore it for the rest of the day. I felt happy. I had hair! It wasn’t real or serious but that was okay. I received zero stares from strangers and felt no inner bald-shaming. The power of hair coursed through me. I went to my local tea shop, to the public pool to swim, to the store and felt alive and unfettered. Some friends laughed when they saw me but others seemed slightly taken aback. Was it because they had stood with me on the courageous path of no-hair and now here I was thumbing my nose at my own fierceness? I had to admit it felt exhilarating to hide from my baldness. To erase it even.
Susan laughed when I came through the door. She got the fun part but said she still thought I was more beautiful without it. I loved her for saying that.
I put on the wig the next day but something had changed. I pushed the bangs around. It didn’t feel the same. I was honoring lymphoma, following my body into healing and allowing myself to be vulnerable and to show it to the world. I took the wig off and hung it on the end of a bookcase.
I was bald again. More badass than ever.