Dear Lily June,
There’s an old children’s nursery rhyme that goes something like this:
“Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he?”
With its internal sound play (bear = bare, wuzzy = was he), it almost makes balding sound like a fun thing. I can assure you, having experienced the phenomenon before I hit the age of twenty–and being a woman to boot–it wasn’t nearly the playful experience the rhyme portrays.
Just as it is now, it was August. I was going off to college at the end of the month, and one of my oldest friends, Mira, and I decided to relive our youth by having an end-of-the-summer sleepover. We were eighteen, foolish and carefree, and we had grown up together. I had helped wash the green from her hair from many a summer’s chlorine stains. She had helped untangle gum from mine when a bully had attacked me on an elementary bus. Though I had moved to another district by the time I hit junior high, we never quit each other, and we were about to take our first leap into adulthood.
We would be going to different colleges come fall semester, so it gave the night an element of the bittersweet. We recounted our memories over and over, each moment lilting like a song we knew all the lyrics to by heart. Sometimes you carry someone’s past with you so long, that as they grow and change, it becomes all you have in common. But like family, some friends are there in part to help you keep the good times stored away like treasures that you can revisit in the chest of their minds.
Other times, the moments you share will be less than pleasant. Going to brush my hair before I slept for the evening was one of those kinds of times. I ran the brush through my expectedly thick tangles and got caught on what wasn’t there. I reached up, uncertain of what I was feeling. It was slick. Almost greasy. (I know I’ve told you this story in an earlier letter, but bear (bare?) with me.) You can hardly imagine the horror, my questioning what in the world got caught on the back of my scalp before sleeping. I looked to the floor and saw nothing. (I still wonder how such a large chunk of my locks could just go missing.)
I turned my back to Mira and asked her what she saw there. Her face contorted, not quite into Edvard Munch’s famous painting, but into a terrifying mixture of confusion and pity. She just said, “I think I should take you home now” while my “What is it? What is it?” kept ringing in the air, unanswered.
At home again, I woke my mother in the early morning, the witching hour, to ask the same question. She was less than withholding. “Yup, there’s nothing there,” she said for an instant to my relief. “Wait a minute, what do you mean nothing?” She asked had I been pulling or tugging at my hair with the brush. “No,” I ventured cautiously. “Why?” And like my friend’s face, hers conveyed everything. When she said “Nothing,” Little Lily, she meant nothing. There were no rashes or marks, no scars or cuts. But there was no hair there, either. Suddenly mommy wasn’t very fuzzy, was she?
And this was the way I began my college years, with stress-induced alopecia that at first I thought was cancer, then lupus. What is was was literally Nothing. No discernible cause but that silent stalker, the autoimmune disorder.
When I would ask my urologist, years later, why no one seemed to be working towards a cure for these conditions, essentially all he could tell me was how much doctors still didn’t know about the functions of the immune system–why some are so healthy, and others attack normal cells as if they were invaders. Also, he said to me, it’s just “not as sexy as cancer.” How’s that for absurdity?
I’m in no way suggesting that alopecia areata–where the hair falls out in patches making the patient appear like a dog who has been chewing at her stitches–should take precedence over conditions that are life-threatening. But a sufferer is a sufferer, and it’s a horse with a mane of a different color entirely when you have to live, day in and out, with your embarrassment. Your baldness. Your suffering.
I took a bus to college, commuting an hour each way from home because the dorms would have destroyed me financially. Because of that same poverty, I couldn’t cough up the dollars for a high-end wig, made exclusively from human hair and a plastic suction shell so tight, the saleswoman assured my mother excitedly, “Your daughter could still go swimming!”
It didn’t matter. We could never afford the hundreds of dollars it would take to make that rug commute around on my skull. Let alone the hundreds of thousands it would take to build a pool on the in-our-dreams-only lanai. Instead, we took the option the poor can afford: fake extensions made from horse hair I would glue onto my exposed spots every morning.
Some mornings, I was so exhausted from late studying and an early commute, I would let the bald spots ride. Bus passengers eyed me suspiciously. Weren’t people with cancer supposed to hide their hair loss under beautiful scarves?
Once, at the university’s library, a male student looked me over, bottom to top, and asked, “Are you bald everywhere?” [lascivious meaning implied]. I hate to say it, but in my four years there, it was the closest I came to being hit on. As Vonnegut says, “So it goes.”
In grad school, where I met your father, things got better. The hair had almost entirely regrown, and in our time together, to this day, I only had one spot come back. It seemed to flicker on my skull in the shower for no longer than a lightning bug shines, and then my adventures into alopecia were over.
But I don’t forget that time. I still am loath to glance too long in a mirror, afraid the tell-tale signs of my anxiety will come reaping their way through my follicle fields again, an ever present sickle waiting to swing-cut its crop in the back of my mind.
And what makes it easier to remember is that you, too, little Lily, now have the spots that once terrorized me cropping up on the back of your still-soft skull. I don’t worry so much for your loss: the push towards the “Back to Sleep” campaign–where we’re meant to lay you on your back every time we set you in a bassinet to prevent SIDS–is the most likely culprit.
We sacrifice at the altar of tummy time and pray to the gods of hair growth that your scalp will fill back in. And likely, as you age, it will.
Your daddy’s hair is another story. Sitting out on our apartment porch, he pulls whole fists of strands from his head and lets them catch the wind. He says he is not self-conscious, just concerned that it’s coming out while he’s still so young. I know I could love him if his head resembled a cue ball. I could rub his skull like the belly of a Buddha and make wishes about his happiness. It’s the same with every dandelion I’ve ever blown the seeds off of. The stem sits proudly, unconcerned by its baldness, and holds every dream I’ve ever pinned on it.
To lose his hair will mean he has chosen to grow old with me, young though he still is now. To bear witness to his baldness as likewise your growth would be an honor. And if I, too, should go bald again, I will remember the times, as you do now, that you’ve twisted my frizz around your fist and tugged. And I will be thankful for my loss. Okay, too much. That’s not likely!
- “Mr. Clean logo” by This came from a Procter & Gamble website. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mr._Clean_logo.png#/media/File:Mr._Clean_logo.png
- “The Scream” by Edvard Munch – WebMuseum at ibiblioPage: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/munch/Image URL: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/munch/munch.scream.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Scream.jpg#/media/File:The_Scream.jpg
- “TaraxacumOfficinaleSeed” by Greg Hume – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TaraxacumOfficinaleSeed.JPG#/media/File:TaraxacumOfficinaleSeed.JPG