I dreaded today. All the reasons came flooding in as I lifted the warm blankets and placed my feet into new protective pink slippers. Barefoot had gone by the wayside. A soft panic grew and faded as I prepared myself to face the inevitable. Logically, this was the right decision. At seventeen, life wasn’t fair. In the scheme of events, today’s task was minor. Yet, it was a line of delineation, wasn’t it? A point of change, of no return. I changed into my jeans, red runners, and the last concert T-shirt with its Black Flag band logo. I practiced a brave smile in the bathroom mirror. Despite the head of perfect curls and badass t-shirt, the reflection showed a weak, fear-ladened smile. “Weenie,” I muttered. I’d need a better grin to get past the parent over-concern I’d soon encounter. This protecting them from hurt was exhausting. One last forced smile—It’d have to do.
Descending the stairs, I overheard mom whispering.
“This will be hard.”
“She’s a tough kid, she’ll be fine,” assured Dad.
“Kids can be cruel and those curls… I wish…”
Dad wiped the tear and wrapped her in a bear hug.
My red sneakers hit the foyer tile, disrupting the moment.
“Hey there Lydia, ready?” Dad released mom from the hug and held my coat open. Mom busied herself adjusting her wrapped scarf. I slipped my arms into the coat and smiled that practiced brave smile. Their fake brave smiles echoed mine, and we all headed to the car.
The three of us, with heads down, shuffled toward the glass door emblazoned with the name Etoile’s Kismet of Beauty. Dad held the door, and I allowed mom to walk through this portal first, my feet unready. I stumbled over the metal threshold, surprised by a black felt letter board with Lydia printed in neon-colored stars. The letters below welcoming me to my Bad Hair Day. Well, that was different. No one had welcomed me to terrible hair before. Etoile, the French owner of this recommended upscale spa, was the Co-owner with her partner Kismet from India. They were classic beauties, clasping hands, and smiling at me like I was some rare diamond. The sincerity of the smiles lightened my heart. I rolled my eyes and grinned.
“Welcome to your Bad Hair Day. The place is for you alone as long as you need it today. I’m Etoile and my partner is Kismet.” They eye each other with a hunger too visible to deny. My research left me unsurprised. Kismet let go of Etoile and bowed. She took my mother's hand and led her into the salon. The redheads' nametag read, Belle. Physically a stunner, she took my father by the hand and lead him willingly away. Etoile stretched out her hand. I hesitated.
“All magic begins with believing,” Etoile said in her thick French accent.
“A disastrous hair cut is magic?”
“Can be, if you want it to be.”
Something in me gave way. Perhaps it was knowing her name in French translated to Star, and Kismet defined fate, and Belle meant beauty. Perhaps, it was the power emanating from her truth and not her pity, that resonated with me. I didn’t know. I took her hand, and she led me around the curtain to the most magical of salons.
Crystal chandeliers radiated rainbows onto the white walls and floors. Refracted light bounced off the rectangular wall-to-wall of mirrors above the contemporary black blocks of wood stylist stations. Black leather and shiny chrome barber chairs sat idle, waiting to comfort us. It was sublime. Overdone, true. Surreal—like a walk in the clouds. Heaven must feel this magical. I wiped that thought from my head. Those were dangerous thoughts. I’d stay with the cloud thought.
Mom and dad stood with their stylist Kismet and Belle. Etoile pulled me as I lagged, hesitant. Bad Hair Day seemed daunting. Since the day of pronouncement, when I got knocked back by some staggering numbers, I’d learned not to go gentle into anything.
“Sit,” Etoile motioned to the chair my parents flanked. I stood, resisting for reasons I couldn’t help. This was my hair, after all, my trademark, mine. I imagined I’d spent a year or two of my life caring for these Medusula S-curves; I should protect them as best I could. “Choices are the menu of life. Close your eyes. Hear your heart. Choose.” Odd advice. I wondered what planet raised her. But I found myself with eyes closed and seeing a pinpoint of white light. With opened eyes, I slid into the leather, resting my red runners on the ‘U’-shaped chrome bar which allowed my legs to rest. The tension left my calves. Weird how you can be nervous without noticing.
Etoile’s reflection through the wall-to-wall rectangular mirror above her floating wood station made two quick claps on the heel of her elegant hand. She announced, “Let Lydia’s last ever Bad Hair Day begin.” The lights lowered, and my parents sat in the chairs beside me. All three of us were ceremoniously caped in black vinyl. The ridges and gloss of the cape excited me. I imagined myself draped in one of the dad's old 45’s just as the music played some jazzy song I didn’t recognize.
With a twirl, I was facing away from my image. A bulletin board appeared, wheeled in by two women, who were making a big show of it. Their gyrating dance to the bluesy jazz caused my dad to guffaw and blush. My mom cleared her throat. I laughed out loud. As it came to a stop, the girls waved goodbye, and with a runway walk, went back to where they came. They’d titled the board, Bad Hair Day Participants. Below the title were before and after shots. Some pictures had gold stars in the upper right corner, the kind of sticker star you get on your kindergarten papers. I didn’t have to ask why.
My fate was there in front of me. I’d be a face on the board. My brown mass of hair buzzed bald soon too. With luck, starless. Kismet, in silence, flipped the board around. There were fewer pictures. The title was Hair Days. All the pictures of the men, women, and children bald as cue balls and the after shots of them with beautiful hair again. But the eyes were more interesting than the hair. The bald shots showed fear and surprise, even sadness. But the regrowth eyes held this sparkle, this wisdom, that was missing in the bald shots. Before I could quite form a thought about it all, Etoile addressed me. “These are the brave souls who participated in this experiment of life.”
She pulled a clipboard out of a drawer in the wood station and brought me a fancy feather quill pen. “Sign here. It gives us permission to shave off the old and create room for the new.” The form looked standard Earth language, but this pen was just too much fluff.
As if she read my mind, Kismet pulled the feather pen from my hand and place a fountain pen before me. It’s carved wood design indigenous to India’s artistry, cradled in my grip. A rising sandalwood scent soothed me as I signed away my unique hair for bold bald. I handed the clipboard to Etoile and the pen to Kismet, who put up her hand and gestured no with a nod and blink. She wanted the pen to be mine. Scents of ancient trees and poignant ink entwined into an earthy-funk of book smell. Intoxicated, I inhaled its bittersweetness. The pen, now tucked under my cape, remained protected—held tight by both my hands.
“Mirror or not mirror?” Etoile asked.
I might as well see my normal slip away. As she turned me toward the glass, I realized my parents were clippers ready too. “Guys, no. You don’t have to be bald for me. It’s okay,” I said, shaking my head.
“We know,” they responded in near unison. Both signed their forms and remained resolute. And they wondered where I got stubborn from.
Mom and I had our hair pulled back into ponytails and ten inches cut and bagged. Locks of Love would create wigs. For a moment, a bob cut gave me a chic look. Would my curls ever reach that length again? I shivered. Etoile didn’t speak. She took the humming clippers, pulled back the curls and lopped off a wide path of hair right down the center of my head. I gasped. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. She whispered in my ear, “It is best to accept the cruelties of life with the same enthusiasm as the joy. Both have lessons to teach us.”
The tragedy of having Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumours (ATRT) is that once you hear those words and google it you know nothing in your life will ever be the same. All of it will disappear bit by bit, if not by the tumor than by the radiation and chemo. Both of which will start by ripping your hair from your body. It would be a long road. The clippers roared. Tears stung my eyes, but if I broke, they would. So I didn’t.
We did all the pictures and the jokes that come with being bald. Our way of saying, take that, chaos. We took charge before you fated us. But as they put up my before and after pictures on the board, I counted the stars. There were 110, to be exact. Something in me spoke that the number would change.
When we left this earth-cloud, no one said goodbye. Everyone said see you later, stay good, or peace baby. I hesitated over the threshold into reality. It could be cancer affecting my balance again, or my angry rebellion toward reality. My exposed scalp, now sensitive to the weather, caused major goose-bumps. That night, my pen and I began writing and drawing and pouring all of myself on the paper of a leather-bound journal. Things got worse. As things do before they get better.
My hair grew out to a very short bob. Then, one day, it stopped growing. Later that year, at Etoile’s Kismet of Beauty, I hovered through the portal, changed. It hit me—the salon name—the stars and fate of beauty. This year had been all that. Points of light on a backdrop of dark fate that taught me a lot about the beauty of life. An awful hair, or bald day in the design of things, is nothing compared to a life. Even in death, life goes on. No one has any idea what tomorrow may bring, so each day became critical. I poured all my energy into seeking meaning, legacy.
Mom clutched my ATRT Journey book. Over 303 pages filled with my life. Mom kept her oversized sunglasses on and presented the journal to Etoile and Kismet. Her hair was almost past her shoulders again. Dad was forever Dad. His hair grew back almost too fast for my liking. They announced my name and handed my mom a gold star sticker. She kissed the sticker and placed star, number 111, on the upper right-hand corner of my bald picture. They allowed her to add a smaller picture of me sitting in the sun with my afro of curls. My last bad hair day picture beside my last picture day. I hoped they saw it—there in my eyes. The thing that the bald picture didn’t show yet, was the wisdom of life that sparkled in all the eyes of the ones who’d grown their hair back. That twinkle of knowledge that life is life and has nothing to do with fairness.
Life is neither good nor bad. Some days your hair rocks. Other days, your acceptance of messy hair rocks. Acceptance is the path of life. I had days so full of joy, I touched the clouds. And days, I swore I saw the underside of the dirt. The acceptance path kept me balanced, even when my brain didn’t. Each day makes you more than you were yesterday. I looked around at what I once thought was a cloud. Etoile’s Kismet of Beauty was a beautiful place of light, but only because of the angels inside. I moved on to a veritable cloud where life is even bigger, and my hair doesn’t matter near as much.