From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Disappearing Strands

Love is like a virus. It can happen to anybody at any time.

Maya Angelou

Hair to black people is personal and always something to contend with. My hair was a symbol of my black pride. I forged a bond with myself years ago. I committed to wearing my hair only in its natural state, and gained new appreciation for its uniqueness. Black hair has styling capabilities that few other hair types can accomplish— from cornrows to flat twists, Bantu knots to goddess braids.

We wear these natural styles as a symbol of pride and dignity. More importantly, black hair is a shield of protection, originally given to us by our maker to shade our heads from the searing sun and protect us from the cold of night. Although difficult to deal with most times, black hair is a blessing that was bestowed upon my people, a blessing that is painfully absent to me now.

Nineteen days after my first chemotherapy treatment, my hair began to disappear. The nurse explained that because of the type of chemo medicine I would receive over the next twelve weeks, I would definitely lose my hair. I became consumed with thoughts of the road ahead of me in my battle with breast cancer.

There I was, wearing an African-style head wrap pretending I didn’t feel bald spots forming underneath. I never saw the strands fall; my hair just seemed to dissolve. I could no longer ignore what I felt or the reflection in the bathroom mirror.

My hair was fashioned into two-strand twists. Each twisted section had begun to rise as if my hair was swelling from the roots. Portions of the side and back of my hair had developed baby-smooth bald areas. As my fingers groped through the peaks and valleys, they rested on a twist separating from my scalp.

My husband, Charles, inspected my hair. There was no denying it. I was going bald!

Charles looked at me sympathetically and asked, “Do you want me to cut it?”

“Yes,” I replied with a heavy sigh as I sank onto the commode lid.

Charles began cutting my neck-length twists and carefully placing them in a plastic zipper bag. He said I would want to keep them for sentimental value. At that moment, I did not give a damn about those twists of hair. My husband kept softly conveying words of support and encouragement. He assured me that I would be even more beautiful to him without the hair.

He stopped cutting long enough to ask if I was okay. Tears the size of nickels swelled up in my eyes and spilled out over my cheeks. I collapsed against Charles’s legs, grabbing him around the waist. He held me close, lifting me up with comforting words that salved my panic and grief inside. We moved to the kitchen where I could sit in a chair, and Charles could finish the haircut using clippers. I sat there in silent shock, paralyzed by the trauma.

After cleaning up, I was emotionally exhausted. I crawled into bed next to Charles, enjoying the warmth of his body next to mine. He kissed the top of my head and forehead several times before falling off to sleep. I lay there waiting for sleep to come. But an uncomfortable coldness invaded my body. The frigid sensation started in my feet and slowly crept up my shins. It felt like death had started its ascent. Anxiety and panic raged in my chest.

With a sudden force, the top half of my body sprang straight up in bed.

I reached over to Charles, gasping for air. “God, please help me, I’m dying.”

Charles pulled me down next to him, asking me what was wrong. After the wave of panic settled, I realized I was cold because I no longer had hair—not because I was dying. Although my head was covered with a scarf, my body heat was still escaping from the top.

I had been preparing myself emotionally for the hair loss. Now, how I looked was less bothersome than how I felt. I could wear wraps, wigs or hats to cover my head. What I felt was an absence of protection and strength, my entire body exposed as if I had lost a layer of skin, a vital organ.

As dawn approached, I awoke to a new day with a heightened sense of respect for black hair and its value to our physical existence.

Now, instead of embracing the blessing of hair, I choose instead to embrace the blessing of love, and of life!

Valerie M. McNeal

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