Published in Blood and Thunder 2013 ~ reprinted with permission
I drive while Mom rides in the passenger seat beside me. She looks smaller than usual today and less sure, her slender body like a finely tuned instrument measuring all the effects of the newly begun chemotherapy. Impeccably dressed as always, she is statuesque in cleanly pressed, stylish white slacks and an expensive-looking black jacket. Keeping up appearances is important to her, but even her ankles look afraid in those tall, impractical high-heeled shoes she insists on wearing. Her shoulder-length blonde hair, which will most likely fall out from the chemo, is intact for now and displayed almost reverently, a solemn reminder of what is soon to be lost. When I look at it, I take a mental snapshot to treasure in the months to come.
I made the four-hour drive from Redding to Santa Rosa on Friday afternoon to support Mom through her first cycle of chemo. Having prepared myself for every possible combination of vomiting, fatigue, lassitude, and her stubborn and sometimes hostile brand of self-preservation, I was surprised and pleased to find my mother feeling relatively well on my arrival, about 24 hours after her first infusion. She is a highly sensitive person and talked about her keen awareness of the cytotoxic chemicals at work in her body, but we also chatted about my job and family, took a walk through her old, upscale neighborhood, and even went out for a pizza dinner. Because it was Halloween night, we retired early from the party atmosphere that was building outside on the street. We curled up on a couch in the darkened house sipping Diet Cokes, watching I Love Lucy DVDs, and hiding from the throngs of trick-or-treaters.
I am now touched and honored that Mom wants me to accompany her on today’s unusual outing. It’s early afternoon on Saturday, and we’re on a peculiar errand of necessity – wig shopping. We’re craning our necks, peering at street numbers stenciled on mailboxes, looking for an address Mom has scribbled on a piece of paper she’s clutching in her lap. There aren’t many businesses here in the rural Mark West area between Santa Rosa and the small town of Windsor to its north. Sunlit patches of autumn vineyard stretch to the east, and old farms flank the west side of the highway, displaying rusty tractors and flower planters made from old rubber tires painted white.
We motor on, hoping that we’ve got the directions right, but then the residential area gives way to stores. This looks more like it, we conclude with relief. Mom may not be sure she wants a wig, but she needs one, and we aren’t interested in spending all day searching for the store. After all, we’ve gotten ourselves all geared up to buy a wig, which was no small task in itself. We pass a strip mall where we see a frozen yogurt shop, a dry cleaner’s, and the requisite Starbuck’s before we find it: Francine’s Hair & Wig Salon. It is a modestly charming, gray-blue, one-story building set back from the road behind a split-rail fence. The narrow gravel lot is flanked by flower beds overflowing with a uniquely northern California mix of nasturtiums and rosemary. As we enter, a bell tied to the front door tinkles our arrival, and the matronly owner inside greets us with kindness and curlers in her own hair. She invites us to look around while she finishes up with one of her salon clients.
All the wig shops I have ever seen (which are few) are old ladies’ affairs, and this one is no exception. Several elderly women sit comfortably under the perforated plastic domes of whirring hairdryers, Good Housekeeping or something similar open on their laps. Aisles of glass shelves divide the tiny space, displaying outdated plastic manikin heads modeling close-cropped, tight-curled styles that must be circa 1950, their blank shapes of eyes staring sightlessly at my mother and I as we browse, bemused and a little dismayed. This is hard. But, we’ve work to do and must forge ahead, eyes stinging from the noxious perm solution that suffuses the air, drawing from reserves of strength we did not know we possessed.
The owner, Frannie, is soon able to give us her full attention, and she starts by asking us whether the wig will be “for fun” or “for anticipated hair loss” – we indicate the latter. This is her arena: she is reassuring and matter-of-fact, while I feel tentative and awkward, which I am masking with excessive cheerfulness. I suspect that Mom is suppressing utter panic and the urge to bolt, to run away to her pre-diagnosis innocence, to a time when she didn’t need to spend part of her Saturday picking out a wig.
In addition to the hairpieces out on display, we are relieved to discover that Frannie has a larger selection stashed away in boxes. After looking my mom up and down, taking in her tailored appearance, she produces some wigs that are thankfully more suited to Mom’s age and style than those the manikins are wearing. Now it’s time to try them on.
We choose privacy – a tucked-away vanity in a corner near a sunny window. Frannie deftly demonstrates how to pull the wigs on front-to-back, arranging them so that they sit like real hair. Mom participates in the conversation, asking relevant questions, but her intelligent blue eyes are a little glazed, and her soft voice is measured. I sense her carefully concealed self-consciousness and muted distress as Frannie leaves us alone in front of the mirror with a few different wigs and a little hairbrush, announcing brightly, “I’ll let you girls play for a while.”
I stretch a stocking cap over my mom’s vulnerable head, feeling the relief map of her skull, the deep ravines where the bone was shattered in another, earlier trauma. I see her scalp angry and reddened from the chemo, and in this moment I become absolutely certain that she will lose all her hair. I wonder at how this experience can be at the same time awful and funny, ominous and tender. Even though we are overwhelmed in dealing with her catastrophic illness, Mom and I are bonding in an intimate way that may not have been possible under more ordinary circumstances. This is also my first opportunity to glimpse first-hand the role reversal that will inevitably occur as my parents age, one where I will, at some time in the future, in some capacity, transition from child to caregiver.
I gently tuck each doomed strand – careful not to tug – into the cap, arranging the first wig with some difficulties. (Frannie made it look much easier.) We smooth the sides with the brush she has given us (which I realize with a start has no need to be sanitized, since it is not being used on real hair). Up to this point, I have been worried that Mom will insist on the impossible: finding a wig that will exactly replicate her own simple, one-length hairstyle with its delicate fringe of almost nonexistent bangs. Now, I’m delighted to find that she’s open to a new look. This one is similar in color to her blonde hair and has heavy bangs and layers, like she’s channeling a country singer, but it’s actually not bad, and she likes it. Although wigs have always given me the creeps, I try on a ridiculous, big-haired chestnut-colored one to be a sport and to introduce some levity.
Mom dons several more colors and styles. We giggle and she preens a little until we are light-headed from salon chemical fumes and the impossibility of this new reality. After multiple trips outside for fresh air and to view the wigs in natural light with a hand-held mirror, Mom finally makes a selection. While she pays at the cash register, I excuse myself to the restroom which doubles as a storage closet. There, I find another marvel to add to my list of today’s oddities – a commercial wig dryer with a wooden cabinet case and cloth-covered manikin head forms inside. This only reinforces my sense of having fallen through a rabbit hole into some parallel universe, some foreign land where I am only visiting and don’t really belong.
After I rejoin Mom and she finishes paying, we escape with relief into the benign late October afternoon. I again take the wheel and we head to the nearby frozen yogurt shop; we both feel like we need something to eat. I examine Mom out of the corner of my eye while I’m driving. To the casual observer, she looks like her old self; she is certainly coping admirably. Her head is held high, shoulders squared stoically in the face of the devastating cancer diagnosis, the major surgery, the unpleasant treatment, and today’s minor ordeal of picking out a wig. But to me, she looks different, almost transparent, as if she’s made of thin parchment paper that’s curling a little at the edges. This experience is changing her, changing all of us who have been affected by her illness, not diminishing us but making us stronger in ways we cannot yet appreciate. We drive on, Mom’s new hair in a bag at her feet. This one task is behind us now, but we recognize that we are only at the beginning.
© 2013 by Jennifer Phelps