Quitting my job as a TV news anchor and reporter was the perfect opportunity to test my belief that life is not all about hair. Novice steps at first, of course—a few minutes less with the blow dryer each morning, a couple of months without highlights—but by the time I was living on boats full time, I was indoctrinated, hair spray and salons supplanted by salt water and sailors. For over a year, nobody cut my hair except the captains I crewed for. I was a master, completely liberated from hair cares just in time to discover…
...it really is all about hair after all.
In the past two months, I’ve been confronted with a grave medical condition, threats to my mental state and emotional well-being, the early demise of my reproductive system, and, oh yeah, mortality, not to mention, given the compressed time frame to deal with all-of-the-above, probably shock. What's left? Hair.
What day will I start shedding? Does it get loose first? Like a tooth? Will I lose all of it? Eyebrows? Eyelashes? What about bikini waxing? How will being bald make my ass look? What does my scalp look like under there? What if I can’t get a wig to stay on straight? When will it grow back? Will this forever change the meaning of “bad hair day”? How long until everyone finally figures out that TV Blonde is not my natural color? These questions keep me up at night and then haunt my dreams when I finally do fall asleep.
Which, I suppose, is why I’m sitting in my hairdresser’s chair, obsessing over how to cut and style it, even though it’s all supposed to fall out in the next week or so. Just when I was starting to forget I have all these toxic chemicals running through my blood.
“How are you feeling?” asks Dr. R at our one-week-after-starting-chemo-how-are-you-feeling appointment.
I give him my standard response: “Great! That’s the right answer, right?”
“Okay, seriously? All things considered, not too bad,” I say.
“Are you tired?”
“A little funky in the stomach, mostly in the morning.”
“Did you need the medication?”
“Are you feeling any other side effects?”
Yes. Restless. Caged. Angry. Trapped. I got an e-mail yesterday from Captain Kid, the young shipwright with whom I crossed the Atlantic last year. He and his girlfriend and the little boat are in Panama, waiting to go through the Canal, to sail the Pacific. On their horizon: The Galapagos, the Marquesas, New Zealand, freedom. And I’m scheduling chemo infusions? What was the question?
“Symptoms? Any other symptoms?”
“No. But I keep waiting for them. I keep looking in the mirror, expecting to see something weird.”
Dr. R thinks this is hilarious. Dr. R laughs at all my jokes. He has also called me twice this week, which makes me happy, but then he breaks the news that he and his wife are going to Florida next week, meaning even my oncologist isn’t available to be my chemo date. Dr. R promises his wingman, Dr. S, will take good care of me, and we make a date to look at all my CT and PT scans when he gets back in town. I can’t decide if this will be more or less fun than shopping for a wig.
Wig shopping is daunting. Who knew there were so many choices? Fake tresses range from about 25 bucks to thousands of dollars (the Website for one posh Manhattan salon has an entire page devoted to financing). Some insurance plans will cover a portion of the cost. Guess what they call it. Dr. R wrote me a prescription for a “cranial prosthesis.” I was so busy gasping at the terminology, I forgot to ask Dr. R if he prefers blondes or brunettes. Me, I’m thinking of going red. My fake-redhead girlfriend in St. John has offered to go fake-blonde “in order to keep balance in the universe.” See? Hair. Cosmically significant. Trust me. The fake-redhead is very spiritual.
To ease into what I’m sure is going to be a traumatic experience, I asked a former TV colleague to go hair shopping with me, “just for fun,” one Sunday afternoon about a week ago. She agreed, but warned she’d have to bring her 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. Perfect! (“At least you know they’ll be honest,” remarked another girlfriend Sunday morning.) If nothing else, it’ll make a good story, I tell myself. This has been my rationale for many of the what-the-hell decisions in my life the past few years. Maybe I should make a note NOT to default to this approach when making health care decisions. (Four weeks of radiation when this chemo thing is over? Why not? Think of the material!)
Another co-worker whose Mom had breast cancer recommended a place called Wigwam. This is where I wanted to go because, come on, the name! I have to buy a wig at the Wigwam. What a great detail! Wigwam, sadly, is in Western Pennsylvania so we head to HAIRTOWN instead. It’s our lucky day. They’re having a wig sale! Right up front, there’s a whole table of wigs for $9.99 (NO TRY ON! warns a handwritten sign). If nothing else, I can grab one on the way out.
TV Reporter Friend marches to the display in the back of the store with her little girl and me trailing behind. (Her son stays in the SUV with his Game Boy, or whatever it is kids play with these days.) It takes me 20 minutes to work up the nerve to try something on, but the other two jump right in. TV Reporter Friend has donned a long, blonde hippie wig that she thinks makes her look like a South Jersey girl on the way to a rock concert. “Atco Meets The Allman Brothers” she calls it. Her precocious daughter, meanwhile, has a black stocking cap pulled tight over her 8-year-old locks, accenting the impish face beneath. She is following me around, shaking her head at everything I touch. “Not that one. Nope. Not that either. Here, try this!”
“What do you think of this?” asks TV Reporter Friend. She’s got a sexy, black bob now. Her daughter giggles. “I want to play a joke on Daddy,” she explains.
I try on the kid’s pick: Reddish-brown, waist-length, straight with bangs. We decide I look like Lindsay Lohan, but it’s not a bad match for my face. The 8-year-old’s got a good eye. I’m not ready to commit, so I ask her to help me choose something from the $9.99 table. We settle on a long and curly strawberry blonde number. I pay, walk out to the parking lot, and try on the wig. I adjust my black shades, toss my messy mane, and whip around to check out my reflection in the storefront. Wow! A pair of stilettos and I’m ready for my close-up with Client #9.
“You look beautiful!” gushes the 8-year-old.
Kids are easy.
We get back in the car, where the 10-year-old glances at me, expressionless, for a second before returning to his game.
“Mom,” he sighs, “Is Margie going to be with us ALL afternoon?”
No. Margie has to test out this wig thing with another audience. Like the one in the Superfresh. I have to pick up dessert on my way to dinner at another friend’s house, so decide to keep the hair for now. Despite the bed head, with sneakers, sweatpants, and dark sunglasses, I think I look less like a hooker, more like a B-movie actress with a hangover, but even that’s out of place at a grocery store in suburban Philadelphia. I’m sure that guy in dairy is staring. All those people in the checkout line, too. Nobody says anything, though (who would dare?) so I stand up straighter, smile, and notice that their hair doesn’t look all that great either.
I wear my hair to dinner. “This one’s just for fun,” I announce to my friend. “It’s not bad!” she laughs. Her kids stare at me suspiciously over spaghetti and meatballs. They think I look like Hannah Montana.
Truth be told, I’m happy with Hannah or Lindsay. I’d like to think I’d be okay with scarves, hats, alter-egos, and maybe even au naturel, but I really do need a decent wig because, and here’s the irony: I’m back on TV! I’m hosting one of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s live performances on April 10. Most people lose their hair three weeks after their first treatment, which for me is… April 8. Seven years after quitting TV, I am going to be on TV—in high-definition—two days after I lose my hair. How did this happen?
I am still clinging desperately to strands of the It’s-Not-All-About-Hair philosophy. I want to be a true believer, I really do. I haven’t given up the faith yet; but like any thinking believer, I do keep questioning it.