How My Mom's Cancer Taught Me The True Meaning Of Beauty

When I was 12, my mom asked me and my sister to shave her head after she had chemo. She was still beautiful, even if she couldn't see it for herself.

My mother made the decision to do it after a large clump of her hair fell out at the dinner table. The three of us paused, watching as the strawberry blonde chunk descended and landed quietly on the side of my sister’s dinner plate.

My mother dropped her fork, the loud clank breaking our heavy silence.

I looked at the place setting where my father used to sit before he moved out and tried to find the words he would've said. Surely something light-hearted — the type of joke everyone needs when things aren’t funny at all. As I searched for the words, however, the only one I could find was: sick.

She was sick.

I decided not to say anything at all. Instead, I quickly swiped the clump of hair off the table, clenching it in my fist and hoping the three of us ­­­­would keep an unspoken agreement to ignore what had just happened.

My mother gathered her plate and excused herself from the dinner table. I sat there for the remainder of my meal, eating with my left hand and pretending not to feel the way her hair prickled inside my palm — the way it clung to my sweat.

Later she emerged from her bedroom, an open bottle of Merlot in one hand, an electric razor in the other.

“I want you girls to give me a haircut,” she said.

She placed the half-empty bottle of wine on the kitchen counter, fished a pair of office scissors out of our junk drawer, and offered them to us.

“Any style you’d like,” she said, smiling at us in a way that didn’t reach her eyes.

“What do you mean?” my sister said.

“Cut it off. Give me a bob. A mullet. Whatever. I’m shaving it tonight so we might as well have fun with it first, right?”

Three weeks into chemotherapy, we knew this would happen. Losing her hair was part of the deal. This was the next step of the many steps outlined to us by a doctor whose eyes oozed pity in a room filled with soft chairs and a lingering sterile scent. Yet, as my mother stood there staring at us, a pair of office scissors in her hand, it was a step none of us were prepared for.

“Which one of you wants to do it?” My mother looked at us, expectantly.

My sister’s eyes stayed on the ground.

“OK. Get a chair,” I said, stepping forward and taking the scissors.

My mother laughed in an inauthentic way, desperate to convince us the little game of “pretend-your-mom-isn’t-dying” merited the same response as a Friday night round of Hungry Hungry Hippo. I began cutting through her thick tangle of curls, ignoring the way pieces came loose without my touch. I pulled strands up between my fingers and tilted my head to the side, mimicking what I imagined a real hairdresser would do. When my work was finished the result was an uneven bob.

She looked in the mirror, fluffing her small pouf in her hands.

“I’m sorry. I thought it would come out different,” I said, internally crossing off “hairdresser” from my running list of future careers.

“Are you kidding? It’s perfect. I just wish I could keep it longer, honey,” she said.

I almost believed her. With my head cocked to the side at just the right angle, it sort of looked good.

She looked at her new haircut in the mirror once more and then turned towards us. “OK. Well, I think we should shave it now. What do you girls say?” she said, and smiled.

“Yeah, I guess we should,” my sister said, her voice cracking.

We stepped outside into the crisp fall air and placed a chair down in the center of our porch deck. My mom took a deep swig of wine and refilled her glass.

With shaky hands, my sister and I guided the electric razor across my mother’s scalp. I focused on the head in front of me and pretended not to know the person it belonged to. Every so often we would step back and squint at her half-shaved head, telling her how beautiful she still looked. She pretended to believe us.

Her hair fell to the ground in chunks, slipping through the cracks of the wooden porch. I watched it fall slowly and I thought about where it would land below us, thought about how the ground would swallow it whole.

My mother handed me her glass of wine. I took a sip and thought about my first communion ­— my only other experience with wine. I wondered if we would start going to church on Sundays again.

As her hair fell, my nausea set in. I started to digest the bareness of her head, the way her neck curved sharply down towards her spine. I noticed veins I had never seen before. I began to take in the way someone could go from looking so full of life to so sick in a matter of minutes.

It was the first moment I realized my mother might die.

“Be right back. I have to pee,” I walked into the house slowly, waiting until I was out of eye line before breaking into a sprint.

I opened the bathroom door and slid towards the toilet like I was stealing first base. With my head in the bowl, I violently threw up. My vision blurred as tears welled up in my eyes. I felt selfish and weak and everything my mother was not.

I was learning so much. I was learning how to use an electric razor and what wine tasted like. I was learning how to smile for other people.

In the next few months, I would learn more. I would learn how to cook chicken when she couldn’t stomach the taste. I would learn that dogs need to be taken for walks quite frequently, and that you really shouldn’t feed cats dog food. I would learn how to fill ice cube trays and preheat the oven.

At 12, I had the unlikely misfortune of being a 28-year-old trapped in a pre-pubescent body. I attributed my mature demeanor to my love of Little Women, noir films, and Keith Richards’ body. And I knew the world was messy — that people got hurt more often than not. I knew that you could stand on an altar and tell someone you loved them one day, and shortly after that same mouth could spit venom as you called them a bitch, your wedding ring rolling across the floor.

My mom stopped telling us she was going to be fine two months into chemotherapy. I think she felt bad lying to us in that way.

She spent hours looking at herself in the mirror, pulling at the sleeves of her shirt and trying to get her wig just right. I watched her stand there and search the eyes that stared back at her for the person she used to know.

She was skinny. The bones in the back of her neck jutted out and her hugs were sharp. She could never get her body temperature quite warm enough and she wore hats in her sleep when her head got cold. Her snowy skin turned translucent; you could see the map of veins that ran along her arms and the way her blood pumped weakly through them. She wore red lipstick and bought outlandish wigs to make herself feel more like a woman. She lived in turtlenecks and black and liked things that covered the marks the needles left on her arm.

Without her long strawberry blonde hair, the natural blush in her cheeks, the curve in her hips, and a part of her breast, my mother was still beautiful — though she didn’t see it at the time. Stripped of the things that society decided made her beautiful, I watched her begin to hate herself. I watched her refuse to be in pictures and cancel plans with friends.

But I found new things that made her beautiful. Things she couldn’t quite see. I saw the way she couldn’t help but snort when she really laughed. I saw the way she found the silver lining in everything, as she remarked on how wonderful cancer had been for her driving record. I saw the way her eyes twinkled when she told a really juicy story and the way they fell when my sister and I had a problem she just couldn’t fix. I saw the way she loved us so deeply that sometimes it hurt her. I saw the way she laughed, and danced, and cried, and all the things that made her human that had nothing to do with her hair at all.

I wanted to be just like her, even if she didn’t want to be herself.

The doctors called her a “fighter,” and as cliché as it sounds, she was. She was a fighter, a survivor, and an unrelenting badass. She still is today.

Ten years later, her curls land at shoulder length. She sits across from me with cheeks that blush from the wine and eyes that still hold the same twinkle they did so many years ago.

“I can’t make you do it, but I wish you would,” she says.

The topic of conversation is one that three glasses of wine always seems to find its way to: why I won’t get a test to determine if her cancer is genetic.

She pours me another glass of Merlot.

“I don’t want to live my life waiting like that — just waiting to get sick,” I say. “Can’t I just be blissfully ignorant?” I add, smiling.

“You’ve never been blissfully ignorant, honey,” she says, and I know she’s right.

But not knowing is a luxury I’ve come to enjoy.

That 28-year-old trapped in that 12-year-old body longed not to know sometimes. I watched other children grow up with two parents and healthy mothers in homes where the heat was never turned off. I imagined those children laughed easier, and smiled often. They had it good. They read love stories and watched movies and fell asleep replaying those wonderful affairs on the back of their eyelids. When someone spoke kind words, they believed them.

My mother leans forward to refill my glass then exhales heavily.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

“It’s not like I wasn’t scared. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of being a bad mother. I was afraid of never falling in love again. I was afraid of dying,” she says, and her eyes wander to some far-off place. “Life is terrifying and frankly, you never know if you’re doing it right."

Getting the test doesn’t change the fact that someday I may have to cut my breasts off, and it doesn’t change the fact that someday I may lose my hair. The test changes nothing and everything. The test only forces me to confront the things I’d rather ignore. I’m afraid that if everything I hide behind — my hair, the glow in my skin, the curve in my hips — was taken from me, that I wouldn’t like the person staring back at me.

My mother, the “fighter,” didn’t love the person standing in the mirror, so how would I love myself?

If everything falls apart, would I be able to get out of bed in the morning? Would I be able to drive myself to chemo, and rock a purple wig? Would I laugh easily and whole-heartedly? Would I smile often, and cry sometimes, and grow up with deeply creased wrinkles that speak to the beautiful, complicated, life I have lived? Would I be half the woman my mother was?

I hope so. But I can't be sure.

Skip to footer