There is a tiny hair salon in the alley between my apartment complex and the large thoroughfare. It's a rundown, one-woman operation, which seems to have lost track of time since the early 1980s. Apparently the salon has a rather limited clientele. Even when there is someone inside, it's hard to tell if she is a customer, for that person would be sitting on the couch chatting with the owner/stylist lady, not on a high chair in front of the mirror. Somehow the business doesn't go under, and I'm happy for the lady. I went into that place twice--November last year, and two days ago.
I had started chemotherapy in late October. The nurse from the oncology department who came to explain possible side effects said that hair would begin to fall off in about two weeks after the first chemo infusion. Mine was the cocktail of Docetaxel and Epirubicin, both of which would cause severe hair loss, so there was no avoiding it. The nurse said that shaving it off would make it less difficult. I nodded, but it's hard to imagine what it is going to be like before it happens. Until about a week into it, it looked like it was going to be slow, gradual, and therefore manageable, even though there were more and more strands of hair on the pillow and on the floor. The second week I had to stay in the hospital in quarantine, for my white blood cell level plummeted close to zero. Little windows of lucid hours between feverish hazes and drug-induced sleep were spent in horrified revulsion against the "sterilized" hospital food. No time to worry about hair. After the second week, though, it was becoming impossible to shampoo in the shower. Then, it didn't even need touching. Strands of hair slowly rained down on the table, on the plate, as I was eating. Wearing a cap to keep the hair in place only hurt my scalp.
The stylist I usually go to, however, wouldn't do it. She just kept crying. We had become friends over the five years, and it was sweet of her to be so emotional for me. This was inconvenient, though. Where should I go, then? Should I do it myself? But I'm not Samantha and my life isn't Sex and the City. Talking to another hair stylist about this at a different shop wasn't an attractive option. Being stared at by other customers in an unfamiliar place was even less so. If my chemo-fatigued self hadn't been so tired and weak that day, it would have taken hell of a lot more inner turmoil to convince myself that anything would be OK with a complete stranger, that they really didn't care. My immune system had just been terrorized and I couldn't wander around any longer. When I went into that rundown place, the owner lady was by herself, watching TV.
As I was leaving, last November, she told me to come say hi when my treatment was over. I don't know why I said I would, but I did. I never forgot that. Since the end of the radiation therapy in late May, I kept thinking about it. I walked past that place often enough, but didn't know whether I wanted to go see her or not. I did and didn't. If she hadn't forgotten, perhaps she'd think I was dead or something. Yes, the tiny hair salon owner has nothing better to do than think about the sullen sickly woman whose hair was falling out, right? The world doesn't revolve around me, I know. But I kept thinking that she did me a big favor when I really needed one. More importantly, it wasn't what she did. It was how she did it. She understood what I needed without my having to explain at length. While doing my hair, she talked about things with me like she would with any other customer. No fuss, and just the right amount of discretion. She encouraged me to get through the treatment well only when I stood up to leave. I had been so freaked out about everything that it was such a relief to have the head shaving finally done that day. In addition, having a bald head didn't seem to matter much when an almost normal conversation with a stranger was still doable. No tears that day, which in itself was quite an accomplishment too.
Two days ago, I finally went to see her with a small gift. She remembered me when I reminded her of my visit last year. Then she said: Was it breast cancer. Was the radiation over. Was I well now. Marvelling at how full my hair was again, she told me not to dye it, for it's no good. Two minutes into the conversation, I was bawling like a child, tears streaming down a year overdue. Such an emotional outburst I hadn't had in over a decade, let alone in front of a stranger--well, two strangers. I hadn't seen when I walked in but there was another woman sitting on the couch. I didn't care. That owner lady handed a Kleenex to me and wiped her eyes too. In that rundown hair place, with the matronly owner lady, I don't know what came over me.