I praise God that my mother is a survivor.
During one of my undergrad writing courses, I had the assignment to write a biography. I thought it only fitting to share this biography on my mom on the date of her five-year anniversary.
* * * * *
“To this day my old hairdresser still comments about the tight curls I had as a child. You could pull it out one or two inches and it’d snap right back.” My mom pulls the straightener further down her bangs as she reminisces about the old front porch beauty shop. Her curls steam from the sudden heat of the straightener. She shifts from one foot to the other in her slippers, the kind that tones your muscles as you walk. “I saw her the other day,” continues my mom. “I was in the nursing home delivering books. She still remembers trying to cut my hair. The curls always were a challenge.”
I remember looking through old photo albums and seeing childhood photos of my mom. She looked like the famous 1930s child star Shirley Temple, complete with the curls, the cuteness, the charisma, but maybe not so much the voice.
“I had ‘dishwater blonde’ hair,” my mom grimaces. Her mother gave the term to her. She didn’t care for it.
I watch my mom as she continues to straighten her bangs. Each strand is carefully arranged, not a hair out-of-place. She takes a large curling iron and starts working on her longer layers. Her medium brown hair, with an occasional hint of silver, transitions into waves. I shake my head and laugh to myself. This was the mom who used to frown when I used a straightener.
“I tried wearing a sock cap to bed in middle school, and pink hair tape when straight hair was in. But then big hair was fashionable in high school. I was in luck!” says my mom. I raise my eyebrows. It’s crazy how hairstyles have changed.
* * * * *
The phone rang and I swallowed a lump of spit.
“Want me to answer it?”
“No, I’ll get it,” my mom replied. Her shaky hands cradled the telephone. “Hello? Yes, this is she.”
I studied my mom closely. I wasn’t going anywhere. She muttered “uh huh” and “yes” a couple of times, then her face became pale. She put the phone down and looked at me. I heard the three words I never want to hear again.
“I have cancer.”
The syllables hung in the air. My mother later describes this feeling as having a bomb dropped on her. I closed the three-foot gap between us and did the only thing I could think of—I hugged her.
“This isn’t right,” I thought to myself. I had prayed and prayed and prayed. My mom wasn’t supposed to have cancer. Everything was supposed to be fine. God was supposed to heal her.
My mom’s eyes were bloodshot and tears started to fall down her face. I straightened my back and snapped into mechanic mode. I needed to be strong for my mother.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” I said, although I wasn’t sure at the time if I believed it or not. I led my mom outside towards the garden where we found my dad working. He was crouched down picking green beans when he saw us. My dad stood up and his face turned solemn. My mom broke the news in a whimper and my dad immediately started going over treatment options. I wasn’t the only one in mechanic, fix-it mode. We were going to find the best surgeon and best doctor available.
“I had an ocean roaring in my ears for days,” my mom says now looking back on the experience.
Nine days later I sat in a waiting room between my grandparents watching my dad pace the floor. My mom had had one clear moment in her days of ocean roaring, and it was to have a lumpectomy with this particular surgeon on this particular day. I sat there, feeling helpless and bland in the sand colored waiting room, and thought of my brother. He had left that morning for a mission’s trip to Costa Rica, a plan made previous to the cancer. He didn’t want to go. He was prepared to send apology letters to everyone that had sponsored him, calling the trip off, but my mom refused. She wanted him to go and wouldn’t have it any other way. My dad and I had gone that morning to see him off. “This is going to be one of the hardest things I ever do,” my brother said as he stepped into the youth group van. We waved and forced smiles, promising to call him as soon as we had news.
The surgeon pushed open the double doors. I felt the lump of spit in my throat returning. He looked at us warmly.
“Everything went according to plan,” he said. We were led back through a maze of grey tunnels and buzzing fluorescent lights to my mother. She looked half conscious. Wires emerged from the dull beige hospital blanket covering my mom’s small frame, recording her pulse. I wished with all my might we could have traded places. No one wants to see a family member suffer. I tried to avoid looking at her chest, but I couldn’t help but notice it’s lumpiness, no doubt created from bandages and missing flesh.
Her lymph nodes were free of cancer, which meant it hadn’t spread. Consequently it only took my mom a couple of hours before she was able to come home. With help on each side, my mom stood up on noodle legs and repositioned from the bed into the wheelchair. She was quiet as we wheeled her out to the parking lot. God was answering some of our prayers, but my mom still had a hard road ahead.
Thirteen days after my mom’s first chemo treatment her hair fell out. She was sitting at the library reference desk, her job at the time, when a patch of hair floated down and landed on her finger. “I purposely didn’t shower that night,” she says, “I heard it falls out in the shower.” After another day of little falling clumps of hair, my mom gave in.
“I’m going to shower,” she announced to all of us when she walked in the front door. We knew what she meant. The hair came out in bigger patches with the force of water. My mom cried as she wiped the hair from the shower floor with a kleenex. Looking in the mirror she noticed some longer curls near the bottom of her scalp that refused to fall. With force determination, my mom got out the scissors and cut the hairs at the root. Later she asked my dad to shave her whole head. I remember seeing my mom come out of her bedroom bald. She didn’t look like my mom—she looked wounded. For the next seven months my mom wore wigs and hats—ones I had helped her pick earlier that summer in an attempt of a girl’s day out shopping spree.
“Everyone does a double take,” my mom said when she wore her wigs and hats. “It’s like having a disguise. Old friends don’t recognize me and new friends think the wig is my natural hair.” My newly formed friends at college didn’t know the difference. I was a freshman in college that fall, but I made sure to come home often. They thought the wig was my mom’s real hair. They had no idea she had cancer. I revealed this secret to only a select few. This wasn’t just my mom’s journey; it was my family’s journey too.
My mom was done with chemo and radiation treatments by December 18 and retired her wig on March 1. Her salt and pepper hair was short and had chemo curl, fine hair that’s as soft as a baby’s. As time progressed, she trimmed off the chemo curl and her hair turned to a warm brown.
I had cut my hair into a short bob that winter. Hair no longer seemed that important to me. I remember smiling for a photo my dad took one Sunday in March outside Bandito’s.
“We’re both growing our hair out,” I said and smiled at my mother.
* * * * *
My mom squeezes a quarter size drop of gel onto her hand. “I don’t worry about my hair nearly as much as I used to,” she says and rubs her two hands together, spreading the gel throughout her hair. She turns off the straightener and heads out of the bathroom.
“It’s a good day when you have hair.”
* * * * *
Today is definitely a day to celebrate.