Three months after my 5-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, I cut off my hair.
It's not what you think; I wasn't shaving it in solidarity with her hair loss. In fact, she didn't start losing her hair in earnest until a couple months later. And while I did donate my eight-inch ponytail to Beautiful Lengths for use in free wigs for low-income women with cancer, the decision to cut my hair was about much more than charity. It was about punctuation.
Or, perhaps more accurately (if I stick with the writing metaphor), inserting a page break and starting a new chapter.
When I look back at the history of my hair over the years, I see a similar pattern: changes in my hair, whether drastic and intentional or passive and gradual, cleave close to the plotlines my life.
My hair was more or less long all through my elementary, middle and high school years, with the exception of a disastrous, very short cut in first grade that made me look like a boy, and an ill-advised shoulder length perm in seventh grade.
At the very end of my senior year of high school, shortly after I lost my virginity, I went to a swingy, chin-length bob. Denouement of adolescence, period (in both the metaphorical and reproductive senses -- thank God), page break, next chapter: young adulthood.
The hair went long again and naturally blonde under the sub-Sarahan sun during the four months I spent in Cameroon my junior year of college. The following spring, when my relationship with the boyfriend I'd had since freshman year hit the rocks, I -- along with legions of other young women nationwide -- got a "Rachel": the 'do made popular by Jennifer Aniston on Friends. With my long layers, chunky black platform shoes and boot-cut jeans ,I'd begun the next chapter: single twenty-something in the '90s.
Over the next couple of years, my hair got shorter. But when I got back together with my college sweetheart, we moved in together, and proceeded to get engaged, it got gradually longer again and -- feeling increasingly more confident and comfortable in who I was, and what I wanted to do with my life -- I began dying it auburn.
The auburn dye went out the window when I got pregnant, and the hair went a few inches shorter when my twin daughters were born. I let it get a little longer once they were toddlers and little yanking baby fists were no longer a threat. And, feeling the need for a little glamour in the face of messy, terrible twos mayhem, I added blonde highlights.
Two years later, after emerging from a long bout with major depression, I left my salaried advertising job to freelance full-time -- a new era, a happier me -- and marked the occasion with bangs. And there I'd been for nearly three years, in a state of hair stasis and happiness.
But then came cancer. Sideswiping us out of nowhere, putting our little girl's life in mortal danger, disrupting the stability of our other daughter's existence, changing all of our imagined plans irrevocably. I spent over six weeks in the hospital with my daughter during the first phase of her treatment, and my hair spent the majority of its time in a ponytail or sloppy up-do.
I began to think about cutting it within the first couple of weeks, and looked into how to go about donating for cancer wigs, figuring I had close to the length required. But if I was honest with myself, I knew that this charitable impulse was really just an excuse.
The truth was far simpler: I wanted to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. While I couldn't control the fact that my life had changed -- that we now faced two or more years of cancer treatments, upheaval and uncertainty -- I could control the way I looked as I made the journey.
I was in charge of my hair, dammit.
I worried that changing my appearance might be too much change on top of everything else in our lives; that it might, in particular, unsettle the girls. But my desire to take action won out.
My (well) daughter was thrown off temporarily ("You're not my mommy!" she said, close to tears, when I came home from the salon) but adjusted quickly. Our other daughter took it in stride -- just as she seemed to be taking the gradual changes to her own hair.
So, these days, I'm sporting an expertly cut, layered bob. It springs into place after I wash it and looks "done" even when I don't do a thing to it. It makes me look a little bit older, I think; but also a little more chic and put-together. And while sometimes I'm wistful for my long hair, mostly, I'm just wistful for the time in my life it accompanied.
Knowing me, and knowing the way life moves, bends and sometimes breaks, chances are I'll change it up again at some point. But for the moment, this is the page I'm on. And this is the hair I want.
This post originally appeared on Femamom.
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