A few years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, and about five minutes later I started having chemotherapy. I expected to lose my hair, but I didn’t care that much. I’ve always felt a little distanced from it. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when hair was supposed to fall in great lank sheets to your waist, but mine was naturally curly, so kids called me Medusa.
Still, the prospect of not having any hair forces you to take stock of your personal style, your sense of yourself. What kind of cancer person was I going to be? How would I wear my disease? Would I cover it up, or would I announce it to the world?
In other words: Would I be a scarf person or a wig person? The scarf person knows that people will see she’s bald and will probably ask why. The wig person hopes that even if people notice her wig, they will assume she’s wearing it because she doesn’t want to talk about why; she just wants to blend in.
I decided that my truer, if slightly holier-than-thou, self would wear a scarf. A wig would be dishonest. I wasn’t ashamed of having cancer. I would go out into the world in my scarves and bandannas, and to hell with discretion.
One night, after I’d started chemo but before it made my hair fall out, I ran into my friend Ruth. By horrible coincidence, we had the same kind of cancer—only Ruth was much further down the chemo path than I was and had already lost her hair. When I’d seen her a few weeks earlier, she’d been wearing a scarf, but now I noticed that her hair had grown back.
I said, “Ruth, your hair looks so great!”
“It’s a wig!” she said. “I never thought I’d wear one, but sometimes I do when I go out. It feels dressy. A little creepy, but dressy.”
When I looked more closely, I could tell it was a wig, but it still looked nice. And if Ruth felt good in a wig, maybe I would, too.
Then Ruth said, “My medical insurance covered the whole thing.” This seemed so bizarre as to be almost unbelievable, and reason enough to get a wig. It was swag, even if you were getting it for having cancer. When was I ever going to get this chance again?
The wig store Ruth recommended, Bitz-n-Pieces, is on the third floor of an office building right near Columbus Circle in New York City. My fitter is a Frenchman named Gwen. Gwen is cool at first, practicing his native country’s ancient art of rudeness.
“What do you want,” he says.
“A wig,” I say.
“What kind of air.”
“What kind of hair? How many kinds are there?”
“We ’ave synthetic wigs, wigs made from the air of Indian women and wigs made from European air.”
Wigs made from the hair of Caucasian European women cost $4,000 to $5,000, but the Indian wigs go for about $900. Why is the hair of Caucasian women four times as expensive as the hair of Indian women? Much better to go with the Indian women’s hair, even though I know they’ve been paid 22 cents to have it shaved from their heads.
I settle on a nice, unassuming brown wig. It doesn’t look that wiggy—more like I’ve finally gotten a good haircut. The hair behaves, falling in nice layers, and it has soft bangs. I look casual but put together, maybe for the first time.
In the hour he spends shaping the wig to my head by trimming and styling it, Gwen gets much nicer. He has cancer, too, and spent months wearing a wig; his own hair has just grown back.
Gwen sends me home with a big bag, which contains my wig on a Styrofoam head. “Take good care of it, my dear,” he says. “Bonne chance.” And we hug.
I leave my wig on the Styrofoam head in a corner of my bedroom. It’s spooky to look at, like a specter that is much better groomed than I am.
A few weeks go by, and my hair falls out. When you have chemo, your hair doesn’t fall out all at once. It gradually gives up the ghost, first in strands and then in little tufts that clump in the shower drain and make you think there’s a dead mouse in there.