She casually walked into my room and stood by the door “My hair has started falling” she said smiling as though she had just told me that dinner was ready or some other mundane household update.
My heart plummeted into my stomach. I knew this day was coming but it had still caught me off guard. In the summer of 2007, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and started her chemotherapy treatment shortly after.
The first day of chemo had been like the first day at school. There were nerves and preparation the night before. We arrived at the Oncology unit unusually early as though our good time keeping would ingratiate us with cancer. When her turn came, my mother sat in the armchair whilst the nurse fitted her cannula.
“Have you had a chance to think about whether you want to try the cold cap Emma?” the nurse asked.
The cold cap is a method of minimizing hair loss during chemo. By cooling the head, the cap reduces blood flow and in turn the amount of chemo medication that reaches the scalp. We had previously discussed the merits of using cold cap and I had felt she was more inclined to try it. That summer morning, I watched my mother consider the nurse’s question whilst sthe scanned the room. Her eyes rested briefly on the only other woman wearing a cold cap. For whatever reason, she decided not to use the cap.
My mother was strong. She had always been strong. My earliest memory of her incredible hair journey went back 23 years. It was 1991, my father had just been offered a job stationed in Ghana. So, off he went with his wife and 5 children to start a life in the little sleepy town of Koforidua.
My mother got herself an apprenticeship working at Tina’s hair salon – a small shack in the local market square. So, while we were at school, she would spend hours learning how to perm, relax, roll and dye hair through a variety of hand gestures, some English but mostly in Twi, a language she didn’t understand.
In the meantime, she had started ordering equipment and products – a hair dryer, dyes, rollers, and giant tubs of Blue Magic hair food, to name a few. I remember there was a lot of Blue Magic, which ironically, also came in green. A year or so later, certificate in hand, the whole family headed back to Zimbabwe where my mum poised herself to launch her fabulous new hair salon…. in the storeroom next to our garage.
The Salon was roughly the size of a small double bedroom. It consisted of one hair dryer, several kitchen chairs (slightly damaged), a white and gold “bedroom style” dressing table, no assistants and one sink which only ran unforgettably icy cold water.
My mother’s salon took the neighbourhood by storm! The rumour was, Emma had returned from Ghana and opened a salon using products from America! Neighbours, church friends and eventually word of mouth customers flocked to our little storeroom to try Dark & Lovely, Blue Magic, Crazy Colour and Lusters – brands which were still scarcely available in Harare.
The hairdryer was the first to feel the heat, or rather, the lack of it. It turned out the hairdryer was not designed to cope with professional use. So on any given day, my mother would offer her customers the choice between waiting for the dryer to emerge from its lull or sitting on the patch of grass outside the storeroom while the African sun did the finishing touches on their roller sets.
Over the months, there were amazing transformations, smelly perms, an unfortunate incident with a woman whose relaxer had been left on too long, and one time, my mother had even had a full complement of bridesmaids – bride also included.
My mother loved people and had enjoyed her salon. She would animatedly tell her captivated customers stories of what she had seen in Ghana, often regaling tales of her experience working in Tina’s salon. Naturally the details of its shack-like quality were omitted. All the while, my mother and father as a team made sure all 5 children were fed, watered and in school.
She took a step into my room, “Tate please can you cut my hair?”
“Mum.” I choked, my eyes brimming with tears.
“It’s only going to fall off anyway” she reassured me, still smiling.
I stood behind my mother and cut her hair. Although the scissors I held were the instrument, her hair gave away too easily – the effect of the chemo. As her hair fell onto the towel resting on her shoulders, I wept. I wept for the hair. I wept for this new uncertain season we were entering as a family. I wept for things I did not yet understand.
She starred at her reflection in the mirror, running her hand over her freshly exposed head. She looked over at me and noticed I had been crying. “Why are you crying??” she asked smiling bravely “It’s only hair.”
Not too long after, my mother and sister came home one afternoon with a new wig which my mum affectionately called her hat.
In the months that followed I watched my mother swing between anxiety to insecurity to indifference and back again. When we went out, she would wear her hat. This generally meant lots of scratching and adjusting, as it was warm and would irritate her exposed scalp. I guess it must be like wearing an itchy woollen hat throughout the highs and lows of the summer. On hat days, my sister and I would take it in turns to tweak, fluff and sometimes spin her hat a full 90 degrees back into its correct position.
Some days she wore a scarf to protect her head from the cold. Other days she was just too cancered out to care and wore her battle wounds in plain sight for all to see.
3 years later, we lost our mother after an incredible Chimurenga war. Come to think of it, she had always claimed to be related to Ambuya Nehanda.
– END –
October is breast cancer awareness month. Cancer is pretty tough business – I speak as a mere observer. I would like to encourage you/myself to look around our communities – people are living it everyday. Make a meal for an affected neighbour and/or his family, pray for the people going through it, visit, call, do a sponsored walk, listen, be patient, encourage but ultimately, give them the greatest gift, that is LOVE.