There is hair everywhere. It is in my clothes, in the shower drain, all over the chair where I sit. The day it began, I woke up to a small pile on my pillow, strands intertwined and curled around each other, a small brown nest. Now the hair is loosening from my scalp and falling like leaves onto my shoulders.
There is no stopping this once it has started.
The baby pulled a whole clump out of my scalp. I doubt he could have realized what he had done as he waved the lock in his tiny fist. He is certainly too young to know what is going on, the reason his mother's hair can be pulled right from her head like carrots from a garden.
And now I have a bald spot.
My head is covered by bandannas and hats, but the bald spot is growing. My collection of baseball caps is growing. At first, flowers arrived at the house in waves, overtaking the living room, and now the flowers have been replaced by a dozen hats, hung in two neat rows on the coat rack in the hallway.
My favorite is embroidered with the phrase "Bad Hair Day."
These are truly bad hair days, and bad days in general. We are not ourselves these days. These days revolve around doctor's visits and hospital tests. Every day is scheduled, pre-planned, a whirlwind of waiting rooms and examination tables. We play musical chairs around the hospital, clinic to x-ray to laboratory to radiology and back to clinic again. We have read every magazine in every waiting room. I watch the other patients, how some shadow me from room to room, and I wonder whether they are in for the same thing that I am.
Every now and then I see a patient, wheelchair-bound, and I think that I might also like to be transported from room to room, as my steps are becoming slower and more deliberate with each treatment. It is becoming a challenge to take my small steps. But I think that I should walk while I am still able.
Sometimes, in these waiting rooms, my husband holds my hand so tightly that I fear he will crush my fingers, but I say nothing because I do not want him to let go.
We wait and see. That is all that we seem to be able to do these days.
My mother watches the baby on these hospital days, as well as all the other days that I am home, sleeping, nauseous. My mother sleeps on the couch. She makes my family's dinner and does the laundry. She is taking care of us, we who are unable to take care of ourselves.
She feeds the baby too much, too often, and I imagine my son, obese by the end of his first year, a gurgling, thumb-sucking Buddha. I cannot imagine my boy being that hungry, maybe because I so rarely feel the urge to eat. But I say nothing, because after all, my mother is taking care of us.
We watch TV all day, my mother and me. She always has the TV on. Her favorites are the talk shows, the nice ones, the kind that reunite families and rehabilitate wayward souls. But we watch the other kind, too.
"Why does there have to be such hate in the world?" my mother asks as a man takes a swing at his ex-wife on stage. "What a shame it is." But we still watch to find out the story behind the punches. And at the end of the show, my mother says, "What a man does with a woman like that, I'll never know. And if you saw her mother, I'll bet you'd probably understand how she came out that way."
At dinner time, "Broccoli," she says. "Broccoli helps fight the cancer. Maybe you should have eaten more broccoli while you were pregnant."
At times like this, I wish I were asleep. I do sleep a lot these days, and I often feign sleep to escape my mother's prattle. Sometimes I will sleep through the afternoon and wake up to dinner sounds, my mother frying meat, my husband setting the table.
I want to sleep through these dinner sounds, as they make my stomach lurch and churn. Most times, I cannot.
But I sleep so well during the day that I am often awake at night, for hours. I lie in bed and listen to the sounds of the TV that lull my mother to sleep in the living room. I imagine the bounty of late-night television from my darkened bedroom, the infomercials, the old movies, the sitcoms.
I am so awake at night that I fall asleep in the waiting rooms during the day. While I wait for the oncologist, I dream that I am healthy, with a full head of hair. I imagine a time before there was a husband, a baby, a hospital. There is a park and a teenage boy. It is dark, and we are sitting together on the seat of a swing set, me on the boy's lap, facing him. It is May, just before the weather changes to heavy, humid summer, and a cool breeze wafts by now and again. We are swaying to and fro on the metal swing, hands touching on the chain links. I put my head on the boy's shoulder, and I feel my arm being shaken. "Wake up, it's your turn," my husband says.
In the examining room, I am weighed, my blood pressure and temperature are taken, I am all but measured with a ruler from head to toe. I roll up my sleeves for the phlebotomist. I dress in a cotton gown, and I sit freezing at the edge of the paper-lined table. I keep my baseball cap on my head. My husband sits on a straight-backed chair, and together we wait for the oncologist. We are silent. The only conversation between us is the tapping of my husband's shoe leather against the tile floor, and my heel rhythmically kicking the metal table.
The oncologist is businesslike, clinical, concise. He asks me questions like, "Do you move your bowels daily?" and "Do you exhibit good appetite?" When I answer, he scrawls notes into a binder. He draws a curtain around the examining table, hiding me from my husband. It is just me and the doctor. He opens my gown and examines my breasts, my scars, my lymph nodes. He writes a prescription for a wig, which makes me laugh, which puzzles the doctor. He tells me where to buy the wig, how much it will cost, an amount of money that astounds me. I think that I will bankrupt my family before this is through. For a moment, I think that perhaps they should just put a pillow over my face, lace my drink with arsenic. It would be more economical.
My husband asks the doctor whether the treatments are working. "It's too soon to tell, really," and casts his eyes down. He scans the binder, as if he is looking for something really important, some vital clue to unlock the mystery of my illness. "Let's wait another treatment or two and then assess things," he says, and I have an awful feeling that I know exactly how I am doing.
As we walk slowly down the corridor to the elevators, holding hands, my husband and I stop at the same time, frozen like deer, and we hold each other. My husband strokes the hair at the nape of my neck, loose beneath the cap. I imagine it all falling out and becoming as bald as my son, my boy. I wonder if this is how he will remember me, or whether he will remember me at all. I wonder whether I will just become some woman in a photograph. My husband shakes his right hand, freeing the hair from his fingers, and he strokes my head again. We linger in the hall. I am afraid to let go.
About the author:
Amy Kiger-Williams lives with her husband and three children in New Jersey. This is her first published story.