Chapter 4 of If I Just Breathe, a memoir by Tina Koral

I hung my head over the bathroom sink and gently raked my fingers through my hair from the nape of my neck to my forehead. Pieces of hair fell into the bowl as silent as snow.

“It’s coming out,” I called to Steven, who was watching a baseball game in the living room.

“No it’s not.” 

“It is. Come look.” He came into the bathroom and saw a mound of light brown hair in the sink bowl. He inspected my head and stuck his finger onto a bald spot the size of a quarter above my right ear. His finger was cold and strange on my bare scalp.

Just the week before, I had a mass of long, curly hair, enough for two women. I’ve always disliked the unruly curls that never looked good, no matter what length or color. My hair just always looked messy, not elegant and sleek like the straight hair of the models that fill fashion magazines. Many times while trying unsuccessfully to get my hair to do what I wanted it to do, I’d think in frustration, “One day I’m going to shave it all off,” not knowing that one day I actually would.

My doctor said it would be more traumatic to lose long hair and recommended I get a short haircut. She said it would start falling out about fourteen days after the first round of chemotherapy. It may sound strange, but at that time I was excited for it to begin falling out. It meant the poison was working. I was also curious to see how I would look without hair; how I would feel. Would I have a nicely shaped head? Was some strange Mikhail Gorbechev-like birthmark hidden beneath my hair? 

 “Honey, I need help. I want to shave it tonight.” We had talked about this before my first chemotherapy treatment – that I would get a short cut, then shave the rest of my hair off when it started coming out on its own. Not only was the falling hair a mess on my pillow and in the shower, but taking it off myself was one way I could take some control of the situation. 

Steven plugged the clippers into the power outlet and turned them on. The initial sound was startling, and as he moved them closer to my head, I moved away.

“I can’t do this,” he said, and turned the clippers off, setting them on the bathroom sink. 

“You have to help me. I won’t be able to do the back of my head by myself.” With trepidation, he retrieved the clippers and turned them back on. I closed my eyes and hung my head back over the sink.

When he was finished, I looked up to see a different person in the mirror looking back at me. He had shaved it without a guard; all that was left was stubble. My head was surprisingly nice and round, and I did not have any birthmarks or forgotten-about scars. My scalp was white where it had previously been covered with hair. My eyes looked big with dark circles underneath. Now I looked like a cancer patient. I cried as I made a loose ball out of the pile of hair left in the sink. The tears blurred my vision so that the hair looked like some small, furry animal. 

I had read about a woman who took the hair she had shaved off and placed it on her driveway. She watched from a window inside the house as birds flew away with pieces of it. She imagined her hair being used in nests, to make shelter for new life. Looking back, I wish I had done something like that, something ceremonial. Instead, I placed the ball of hair in my bathroom wastebasket and went to bed.