I had obscenely long hair growing up. It was super thick, stick straight, and cut in a straight line across my extreme low back where it’d technically reached my rear end. It was so long I didn’t know what to do with it, and I never really learned how to tame it, even in its maturity. It was so long that my mom had to help me tie it back to help me avoid straining my neck. It was so long that while my soccer teammates were having their hair braided in dreadlocks for tournaments, my mop took double the amount of time of others with multiple hands on deck for me to get the same look for team spirit. It was so long that I had to then tie all of the dreadlocks back in a supplementary ponytail because certain referees didn’t like that the little braids became sharp weapons if I turned my head too quickly. It was so long that showers took way more hot water than it would for most to get all of the shampoo and conditioner out, and drains clogged far more quickly than the norm. It was so long that I didn’t even bother with styling products since it was already heavy and hopelessly unruly with a mind of its own. It was a total annoyance, but I liked my mom brushing and braiding it, so the very long hair remained very long.
For as long as I can remember without the help of old photographs, my mom always had the exact opposite hairstyle. Apparently, there was a point in time when my mom was my age that she too had super long, stick straight, dark brown hair. And then she chopped it, permed it, and eventually shaved it all off. My memory of my mom for the longest time ever was with her signature shaved head. My soccer team rubbed it for good luck, and she was a charm. She was so kind to everyone she met that warmth and beauty radiated from her face, and it would have been a sin to have her hidden behind hair anyway. She was so beautiful regardless of what was or wasn’t on her head because of the good on the inside that beamed out.
At some time in junior high school, I’d had enough of my hair after straining my neck one too many times. Chopping it off was liberating, but the new ‘do gave me a weird, naked feeling. I could feel the chopped end without being a contortionist or spinning my head like an owl for the first time in a long time. On the bus home from school one day, a horrible, little girl in the popular crowd made a horrible, little comment about my mother. She made fun of her and her hairstyle and said how I should have given my long hair to my mom and glued it to her head like there was something wrong, sub-woman, or subhuman about her without it.
She said she looked like a patient with cancer.
She said it without knowing her story. She could have had short hair due to brain surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy like she did for the 21 months before she died. She could have had alopecia or maybe some trauma. The girl didn’t know or perhaps didn’t know better, but she was unnecessarily mean anyway. I didn’t have the confidence to speak up for her at the time, but at some point between then, my mom’s diagnosis, her passing, and now, I realized that I am my mother’s daughter and speak up for the underdog even if I can’t find it in me to do that for myself.
To the girl who said it, I’d like to say that you should be ashamed of yourself.
My mom was the person who did cartwheels on the sidelines of my soccer games and taught me that being silly is the first step of having fun. She attended every single game, every single track meet, every gymnastics meet, every single dance class, and every single ballroom competition without fail. When I lived at home, she stayed up late with me while I worked on homework past midnight after sports and other after-school activities just to be with me. She read every essay I wrote to give me a thumbs up when I didn’t have the confidence to decide whether or not it was good enough as is. She told me she was proud of me every day, wished me the “humongiest, happiest, healthiest, luckiest day” every day, and told me she loved me and meant it every single day. When I was away at college, we talked daily and she talked me off a ledge often. She dropped everything and drove the two and a half hours to Connecticut to simply be with me during way too many nervous breakdowns. She was always there. Always.
She let me feel loved and tried to overfill a cup that was cracked by another. She treated her students and her friends the same way. She was everything and made sure you knew you were worth love.
And then she got sick. Her diagnosis of glioblastoma came with a life expectancy of 12 months if she was lucky. She had brain surgery to remove as much of the bastard as possible that left a hoof-shaped scar in her head. Then radiation and chemo made her lose her more hair. She didn’t bother with a wig or head scarves. Actually, she wore a wig one day and decided she didn’t look like herself or like it very much. Instead, together, we shaved off her remaining hair to beat the side effects of her treatments to the punch.
The first night we shaved off her hair, she made a hilarious newspaper contraption that was meant to be a smock to cover her body. It was basically a giant newspaper tarp with a hole for her head, but she was pleased with herself and the end result. She sat in the middle of the kitchen with her newspaper smock on a short chair and gave me the reigns with the electric shaver.
I was terrified. I never told her that, but I was terrified.
The hoof-shaped scar in her skull was still healing and there were still stitches poking out of it.
The electric shaver was shaking, and my hand probably was too.
I was freaking out that the blade would rip out her stitches and make her bleed or that the vibration from the shaver would disrupt the healing inside her brain. I convinced myself that any remaining tumor might jiggle around with the vibration, break loose, and spread more. I thought I would be the cause of making the cancer worse and her die quicker.
My mom wasn’t afraid though. She wanted to get rid of it. It was just hair. So that’s what we did–gently, carefully, and completely. We got rid of it all and she looked like herself again.
Hair is dead, you know. Maybe my mom knew that she didn’t need to hold onto something dead or unnecessary. Maybe she knew she could be better without it weighing her down.
Today, on what would have been my mom’s sixty-third birthday, what I’m trying to say is that the length of your hair, like the length of your life, doesn’t matter. My mom’s was cut really short. Painfully short, if you ask me. But no number of years or millimeters could place a value on the human or the heart underneath. Maybe she knew that. The love and the thoughts and experiences underneath are what count in all of us.
Instead of celebrating surviving another year once a year on our birthdays, perhaps instead we should celebrate every single day for being alive. For getting another chance. For being able to dance and laugh and live because we still can. We should celebrate the lives of the people we love on more than just one day a year. Because one day, they won’t be there.
Today, on what would have been my mom’s sixty-third birthday, what I’m trying to say is stop waiting. You, dear reader, are only guaranteed right this very second. Not tomorrow. Not the day after. You’re not guaranteed the vacation you hope to take one year from now. So celebrate now.
I still wish I could wish my mom a happy birthday today. I wish I could get her cupcakes, make a big deal out of today for the sake of celebrating her existence, and be there when she makes a wish and silently says it as she blows out a candle. But I hope more than anything that she knew how much I loved her every other day of the year.
That’s my wish.
P.S. My hair is way too long again and long enough to donate. It’s being chopped off this weekend! It’s dead weight anyway.