Wednesday, February 01, 2006
February 1, 2006 - Tonsured
This morning I go for my weekly blood test at Dr. Lerner’s office. I’m in and out in about 15 minutes. The CBC (complete blood count) comes back normal – except for that fact that my platelets are a little low.
Is this a problem, I ask Diane, the oncology nurse? No, she says. Your platelets are just slightly below normal range. Nothing to worry about.
About 3:00 this afternoon, I make my decision: Today is the day. All day I’ve been feeling the same odd sensation I had yesterday: that my hair seems drier and more brittle than usual. I reach up and gently pull on a hank of hair. Three or four of the hairs I’m holding come out in my hand. I do it again... and again... and again. Same result.
Yup. It’s starting. The prospect of waiting around for my hair to start falling out in clumps doesn’t seem at all appealing. I call Jim, the guy who cuts my hair. He’s got an opening in his schedule. Come right over, he says, cheerfully.
So I do. I bring my digital camera along, to record this event for posterity – “before and after” shots. I understand that, after chemo, hair can come back in differently, and Jim confirms this, from his experience as a barber. People who once had straight hair can find themselves sporting curls. People who once were mostly gray may have new hair that’s much darker – or vice versa. I’ve had kind of a salt-and-pepper gray in recent years, so I figure anything’s possible. (All the more reason to get that “before” photo.) Jim’s a good sport about taking a few snaps.
He tells me it will all be over very quickly, and it is. The first pass of the electric razor is a little nerve-wracking – it seems so irreversible. After that it’s merely interesting, to watch the hanks of hair fall off the newly-exposed dome of my skull. In no time at all, my head’s covered with nothing but peach fuzz.
Jim takes my “after” photo for me. I thank him and tell him it will probably be a while before I see him again – maybe not till July or August. Then, it’s back home again.
I’ve warned everyone what’s coming, so nobody seems too shocked as they come in the door and find this strange, baldheaded person in the house. Claire, Ania, our nephew Cory and niece Elizabeth all want to run their hands over my head, to feel the fine hair. Everyone remarks on how much I look like my brother Dave all of a sudden (Dave’s my youngest brother, who’s got a bit more experience with this hair-loss thing than I have).
I reach for my beard and try the same pull-out-a-few hairs test I used for the top of my head. Nothing. Try again - nothing. Try a third time - well, look at that: there are a few hairs between my fingers. Try another time - a few more hairs come out. It’s not going to be long for the beard, either. I decide to wait till tomorrow before I do anything more radical.
The beard’s a bit more difficult in some ways. I’ve had it since I was a college student. Having no hair on the top of my head is an adjustment, but having no beard may render me all but unrecognizable to some. Such as my kids: they’ve never known me without it.
Two years ago, Claire, Ania and I had a sabbatical trip to Ireland and Scotland, to study the roots of Celtic Christianity, which was heavily influenced by monasticism. I learned, then, about the tradition of tonsure – the way the monks would shave their heads, as a symbol of obedience to God and membership in the monastic order.
When most people think of a monk’s tonsure, they think of the Roman tonsure: the very top of the head shaved, with a sort of ring of hair remaining, just above the ears. It’s the classic Friar Tuck haircut from the Robin Hood movies.
The Celtic monks of Ireland, Scotland, North England and Wales had an entirely different tradition. The Celtic tonsure included the shaving of the front of the head only, with the hair in the back allowed to grow long.
Today I’ve been initiated into the Order of Chemotherapy. The tonsure of this Order is a good bit more complete than the others: when everything is said and done, there’s no hair remaining. Now I’m marked as a member of this exclusive society – set apart for all the world to see. No one applies for admission to this Order, but some are called to it all the same. Once one becomes a novitiate, there’s no backing out.