I began sheltering at home long before the coronavirus, six months ago in fact, the day I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At 54, I went from being an active, organic food-eating, open water-swimming, yoga-loving person to someone requiring a myriad of medications, appointments and hospital visits.
It started with tenderness under my arm. Two biopsies later, I learned I had lymphoma. And not the indolent or slow-progressing type either — the aggressive version. The kind that requires multi-night hospital stays in order to administer a continuous four-day chemo drip.
After each treatment, my wife Susan, brought me home and I sheltered in place. It took a while to get used to this new way of life— scrubbing fruits and vegetables free of bacteria, constantly washing my hands and giving my wife air kisses 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 hills home while Susan circled my head with the buzzer. Batches of the salt and pepper asymmetrical haircut I’d worn for years dropped onto the newspaper. My fingers fanned out 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 decided to get acquainted with my baldness instead. Every morning I donned a 1930s style men’s pork pie hat instead. I felt like an old school gangster or like a jazz musician back in the day.
But going bald wasn’t always easy.
The world isn’t used to seeing women this way. Men, on the other hand, have full permission. It’s a look. It’s handsome. If a man’s hair starts to recede being bald is a fashionable option. Not for a woman. I got plenty of stares anytime I took off my hat.
I gradually got used to having no hair. It was still me, but I never completely shook off my self-consciousness. If I forgot my hat when I left the house, I turned around and went back to get it. Wigs are an individual decision. I understand the dilemma. Cancer puts us through so much. Still, even though I wasn’t always comfortable with my baldness, I knew it was right for me.
Until it wasn’t. Until I found myself inside a wig shop in downtown Oakland one afternoon.
I wondered what I was doing here. A part of me felt like I was betraying my baldness, the stance I had lived and believed in for nearly six months. Another part of me felt restless and defiant. I was about to turn fifty-five. I was almost done with chemo. I needed to break out.
I scanned the options before me and spotted a crimson shoulder-length rocker wig with disheveled bangs. I put it on. I was transformed — it didn’t look anything like my real hair and yet it felt so me.
I bought and wore it for the rest of the day. 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 my new hair coursed through me. Some friends laughed good-naturedly while 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.
The next morning, I put the wig back on but something had changed. I pushed the bangs around and struck a pose. Nothing. I took it off and hung it on the end of a bookcase. I had honored lymphoma, followed my body into healing and I didn’t want to erase that. I couldn’t. I left the house without my hat that day. I was bald again. Feeling bolder than ever.