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Home | Episode #59
November 30, 2020 | Student Producer:

Lily Yates
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Professor Haley Swartz recounts her mother's experiences with identity and cancer. (6 minutes)

I sat on the red chairs, the new ones - at least they were new to me. I hadn't been home for two months. That afternoon I took the four and a half hour journey south amidst the rolling hills and gilded trees, a quick escape during the fall of my senior year of college. It would have been a perfect autumn day despite the cloudy sky chasing me from upstate New York to central Pennsylvania. Now home away from the chaos of college life, prepared for a relaxing weekend filled with catch up reading, my mom and I curled up in those red chairs, rocking by the fire. “I think you should get a long blond one this time, something really fun,” I said, paging through the catalog we got in the mail that day. I held open a page, pointing to my personal selection. “See, look at this one, isn't it fun? Or maybe this red one, but definitely long, not short. I haven't seen you with long hair before!” My mom turned and looked at me, her features washed out without makeup and her eyes small, already missing the embellishment of eyebrows and eyelashes. She ran her fingers through her hair, really just a crop of strands sparingly dispersed over her scalp. “I'm not going to get a wig this time,” she retorted. She didn’t like the way they itched against her bare skin or how hot they made her head. “You think my hair looks that bad?” I didn't answer. That question had popped into our conversations frequently over the past few years. After losing her hair the first time, she could never get it right. When her hair finally returned she cut it close to her head as if afraid to lose it again, then she let it grow, sculpting it into a helmet every morning so no stray hair would fall into her face. She straightened her waves, experimented with perms, put it back with pins, pinned it up in curlers. She called in my young and modern expertise but never liked what I did with it. 


I never really thought about how transformative it would be to lose my hair. It's such an intimate part of our sense of self and it can be the ultimate accessory. It can be manipulated to fit any mood, dressed up, dressed down, neglected, overdone, colored or left alone. My mom had battled with her hair all her life. It was naturally curly in the 60s and 70s when hair needed to be ironed straight and it wasn't curly enough in the 80s when hair needed to be large, puffed up and over the top. In the 90s she settled on a constant short perm until it shed, clump by clump. Hair is a part of womanhood. After losing both of her breasts and her uterus my mom's hair was the only evidence left of her femininity. Even the wigs when she wore them were never quite right. There was the short flippy one, the quintessential mom cut, the curly one that never laid right and the one that looked fine but.. the color was just off. The wigs were never a part of her. They never defined her. They simply concealed her disease. Maybe it was fitting that she was losing it again even though the doctor said this time she wouldn't. This was the enduring narrative of her experience with cancer. It seemed as though nothing the doctor said was ever right. Her double mastectomy was the first answer. Cancer grew in scar tissue. Then it was radiation to zap the growth but they missed the spread. It was one round of chemo, then another plus radiation, then more surgeries, then more drugs, a merry-go-round of invasive treatments with side effects that became increasingly unbearable. 


“I think you'll want a wig,” I urged. “You know winter is coming up, your head will be cold.” I could hear her inhale and then let out a soft sigh just loud enough for me to notice. “Then I will wear a hat.” Folding the catalog, I slipped it somewhere between the towering pile underneath the lamp table. I sat back in the overstuffed red chair, crossed my legs as I tried to find my place in Jane Eyre. Jane had escaped from her Rochester and was wandering through fields aimlessly drifting towards a faint light. My mom started rifling through the pile of catalogs and magazines. “I guess I can at least look at them,” she said. “But if I get one, I want a nice one that doesn't look like a wig or feel like one either.” In the end, she never wore another wig. Through her last few months her head accessory of choice was a warm and fuzzy fleece cap, like the adult version of hats made for newborns, a shield from plummeting temperatures and a mechanism to control fragile body temperatures. Most of the time she slept. She couldn't sleep at night. It was a short in her circadian rhythm, perhaps the result of the anxiety accompanying the awareness of mortality, so she spent her nights shrouded in the comfort of her cap, curled up in her red chair. Those red chairs are no longer a pair my brother uses one to rock his newborn baby girl to sleep, and I lean against its twin at my dad's house, peeking over his shoulder as he pages through old photos, smiling at memories of my mom without her wigs.