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How It Feels to Shave My Mother's Head for the Third Time

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Today we shaved my mom’s head for the third time in her life. The first time was eight years ago in 2010, almost exactly to the day, when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. The second time was about a year ago, I think, almost three years after the cancer came back and metastasized to her bones — when she had to start a more aggressive medicine for chemotherapy. And the third time we shaved her head occurred a little over an hour ago.

My mom doesn’t like to let the hair fall out on its own — she detests it, really — so she always insists on staying ahead of the game and shaving it herself (or at least having me or her hairdresser shave it). When I asked her why she wants to shave it off even though she still has a (seemingly) full head of hair, she tells me, “I keep finding hairs in my food and all over my clothes! Let’s just chop it all off!” I can’t help but admire her assertive nature.

I never really know how to feel or react whenever we have to do this — especially if I’m the one with the razor. So far, I’ve been able to separate myself from the underlying significance of this action. I think my brain tries to protect me from the obvious trauma of having to shave my mother’s head because she has cancer. When I’m actively shaving her head, it almost feels like we’re playing dress up and I’m simply styling my mom’s hair for the fashion show we’re about to put on. It feels like a project rather than a “medical” treatment.

But afterwards, when she gets in the shower to wash off the loose hairs on her neck and shoulders, I’m left alone with a dirty razor and my own thoughts — or rather, lack thereof. I always feel an empty sadness during these quiet moments, though I can’t bring myself to cry. It’s like I’ve just thrown away something from my childhood –something I used to treasure. It’s a puzzling emotion that overcomes me because I never really thought about how different my mom would seem without her hair. She’s never been particular about how her hair, or any other part of her appearance, looks. What does it matter whether she has hair or not? I should be used to seeing her this way by now anyway, right? So, why does it still affect me?

Maybe deep down I’m still the little girl who brushes her mom’s hair while she reads aloud from one of my school books. The little girl who lays her head on her mother’s lap just so she’ll brush my hair with her fingers. The little girl who is now taller than her mother and can see clearly over her graying hair. The little girl who, when she hugs her mother, bends down to rest her nose on her mother’s head to breathe in her unique scent.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see a woman with a shaved head. And when cancer is in the mix, it’s almost always inevitable. I’ve grown up seeing other people — other cancer patients — who look this way. But if I’m supposed to be a big girl now, why does the simple act of shaving my mom’s head make me feel so small?

Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of shaving her head, I catch this look on her face — one that’s distant, tired and unmistakably scared. I try to lighten the mood and talk about whatever random things I can think of, hoping to take her mind off the severity of her illness. I wish I could take away all her pain and sadness — I wish it was me who was sick instead of her. But I feel helpless when it comes to my mother’s cancer. And the hope I had at the beginning of her treatments is slowly thinning each time I see the defeat and exhaustion taking its toll on her.

But regardless of how it makes me feel, I will always respect her wishes when it comes to coping with her illness. If shaving her head will make her feel more comfortable in her current state, I will gladly be the one to do it for her. My heart aches with every strip of hair that falls to the bathroom floor. But I soldier on, because she isn’t alone in this battle against cancer.

daughter and mom after shaving her head

Originally published: February 20, 2018
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