Friday, September 7, 2007


November 2006
I find myself hating my hair in a particularly virulent way. Certainly I have hated my hair many times before, but now I hate my hair because I believe that it signals my religious hypocrisy: I am in fact the only woman at Nefesh, with one exception, who did not give up her hair at the moment of marriage, does not wear a shaytel (wig) and until very recently perceived hats only as clever matching accessories to her yeshiva moror (teacher) outfits.

Let's begin at the beginning: Why do Jewish women cut their hair very short when they are kallahs (brides) and hide what remains under a (beautifully styled) wig? (My Catholic friends might want to take this opportunity to wonder if the covering of a nun's head harkens back to Judaism? If I remember correctly, every depiction even (especially?) of Mary, a Jewess after all, shows her with head modestly covered.)

Explanation #1: G-d said so.
Explanation #2:There should be no knots or snarls in one's hair when one submerges one's total self in the mikveh (ritual bath). One must blend completely with the holy water.
Explanation #3:Once a woman marries and pleases her husband, she understands her sexual powers, symbolized by (or maybe even literally represented by) her hair. (Even if she wears the most beautiful wig in the world, it is still not her real hair.)
Explanation #4, a logical corollary to #3: A man studying Torah or davening (praying) should never be distracted by a woman's actual hair.
(The Skeptic's) Explanation #5: Since it was very sunny and sandy in the desert, it was a common habit (nun pun unintended) to cover one's head.

Anyway, I am so distraught because of my curly, abundant hair that I tell my supervisors that I cannot continue with the hats and therefore must leave Nefesh. Unbenknowest to anyone, I have a big nasty clot growing underneath all that hair; also lurking deep inside is the secret that I long for a kosher marriage to a kosher man, with whom I can practice all the rites and rituals of my religion. One way or the other, I am obsessed with the belief that I am either cheating or being cheated.

February 2007
I open my eyes and find myself in an ICU bed at Lutheran Hospital. I imagine that I have a huge goiterous growth on the side of my neck, (reminiscent of an old Seinfeld episode), but this perception turns out to be untrue. Instead, I soon learn that I have somehow surived an emergency craniotomy. The bandage is removed; I reach back and discover that a large portion of the right side of my head has been shaved. I find a clump of hair - no doubt mine - on the pillow next to my head, which feels as if it might roll off (just like the head of Saddam Hussein has recently detached from his body) if I am not careful. Having bigger fish to fry, I am no longer too worried about my hair.

April 2007
I must make a terrible decision: Either I have whole-head radiation, which would somewhat reduce the odds (maybe) of the recurrence of kidneycancerbecomebraintumor (go figure) and lose all my hair or "just" have focused radiation and lose only some of my hair. The doctors (some kindly, some not so kindly) inform me that there is a 70% chance that some hair, in some form, MIGHT eventually grow back. To confuse me further, I am told that "there is no right or wrong decision - only a decision."

I decide that I should start cutting my losses and choose focused radiation. So far I have lost: part of my brain, my left kidney, my marriage and a peculiar portion of hair near my right ear. I am still much too unworried about what will ultimately become of my hair; I am, unrealistically, as it soon turns out, glad that I am not going to be completely bald and that I actually have so much hair on certain parts of my head, which now seems grotesquely large, like a globe of an unexplored world.

July 2007
Thirty sessions of radiation have gone well. I am still, however, far too flippant about the areas of missing hair that surround the irradiatied parts of my head. With the best intentions, I start taking an immunogenic drug called Nexovar, which will take care of any micrometastases that some doctors (not all) fear are still floating around my body. Upon the first dosage of 400 mgs., I become acutely aware of my Çaesarean scar, which has never, in 27 years, pained me. (I am shortly to learn that chemo drugs arouse pain in any and every wound the victim has ever acquired.)

Soon my body turns brick red from head to toe, and I have no normal-colored flesh left. After some days, the red rash turns black, and I figure, in my delirium, that the drug is doing an excellent job of choking off the blood supply to the cancer, as it should. (I wonder, however, with whatever rationalitiy remains, Do I really have cancer in every inch of my body, inside and out? If so, I am in big trouble.) I am in fact in such big trouble that I think my mother is coming nightly to take me to heaven and find out only later that Mrs. Appelbaum, in her concern, is entering my bedroom well before break of dawn to see if I am still alive. Eventually, my entire body, from forehead to heel, begins to peel, leaving new, ultra-sensitive skin that I am too petrified even to touch.

Then, without even actually realizing what is happening, the most devilish of all devilish nightmares becomes reality - the rest of my hair starts falling out, even though the drug insert says that alpoecia occurs in only 1-2% of all cases. (After eight days of dutifully ingesting the drug and watching my skin and scalp revert to prehuman states, I am told that the drug is inapporpriate and should never have been prescribed in the first place; just as dutifully, I stop taking the pills). BUT - (and here I am purposely violating my own injunction against ever beginning a sentence with the word BUT no matter what the NY Times is doing these days), BUT - my hair continues to fall out in huge enormous clumps, which show up in vastly useless and terrifying places: in my hands, in my mouth, in the bathtub drain, on the floor. My beautiful, thick, curly, bushy, totally unreligious hair is falling out and does not stop until some time in September.

I wail and scream and cry like the wild animal I believe I have become: I am losing my personality; in fact, my entire individuality. My less-than-human outbursts scare everyone around me half to death, and, when I finally calm down a little, I ask each one if he (or she) can ever possibly love a baldy beaner or, in a much more dire and horrific vein, an Anne Frank look-alike (such are my terrible swings of mood and vacillations of thought.) Some people answer affirmatively; some are too scared to answer at all.


A few straggly ugly gray hairs remain. I want to attempt comb-overs but am afraid these hairs will fall out if I dare to take a comb to them.

Then one day it comes to me, perhaps the way the truth came, with soft rays of sunlight, to Joan of Arc: G-d has given me the experience I had rued not having. He has taken my hair. (No explanation point is needed, because the truth comes to me as a gentle, quiet, undramatic revelation.) I now know what it means to lose one' s hair and wear a hat to cover one's unfamiliar head. (Part of the quiet revelation is that the hair will grow back if and when G-d decides it should; it is totally out of my control.)

(My question for the Rabbis: Yes, I am a B'al Tshuva (Returner to my religion; Repenter). Do bad things happen to people like me because of the need to do tshuva? After all, even King David needed to do tshuva in order to understand what it felt like. Or am I wrong? At any rate, as a teacher at school later tells me, I am now "purified and cleansed." I will never be sure what she means, but the need for tshuva was real and remains real: I therefore offer every missing part of my body as tshuva, if this is appropriate; perhaps I will never know if it is. In addition. I offer every strand of the hair that previously defined me.)

Friday, September 7, 2007, 6:31PM
I just reread what I have written. The frequent tone of sarcasm is upsetting, but I know it covers an intensity of emotion that I am not as yet strong enough to feel.

The sabbath is rapidly approaching, the last one of this odd old year. So I will wish everyone a "guten shabbos" and observe as best as I can.

1 comment:

Sheryl said...

This is really beautiful.

Hair or no hair, whatever does happen, we're just glad to have you back.