“Hi, Heidi, come back to the sink,” Jenny, my stylist at Hair Nature said, waving her hand. She wrapped me in a black plastic cape and began soaping my head, then stopped. “I’ll be right back.”
I rested my wet head in the curve of the salon sink and concentrated on the oversized glossy images of stylish women and men on the wall with flowing tresses and sexy smiles. Three hairdressers suddenly hovered over me, forming an impromptu huddle as they stared at my hair.
“Sit up,” Jenny said. “Let’s see what’s happening in the back.” She gently pushed my head toward my chin.
“I wouldn’t color it today,” the updo expert said. “Try an anti-breakage treatment,” the colorist added, running his fingers through my ends. He turned away, but I still saw him shake many loose wet strands from his fingers.
“That may help and it would give it some shine,” Jenny said. “It’s so–” She turned to me with a, oh honey, you’re a mess, smile. “Have you seen a doctor?”
She rattled off the possible reasons for hair loss: poor diet, overuse of product, and alopecia.
I’m around doctors all the time, I thought. “I barely had time to see you today.”
“See a dermatologist and maybe a nutritionist. It could be your thyroid, though your eyebrows look great. I should shape those today. We’ll try the anti-breakage treatment to add strength. It may help. I’ll cut it one length and even the sides. I don’t want to do anything else until you find out what’s going on.”
As I stood at the register, Jenny came around the desk and handed me a yellow Post-It note with a web address for Glamxhair. “They have some great products.” She hugged me goodbye as if she would never see me or my thinning hair again.
I took one last look in the mirror. The new cut made my brunette hair look fuller and the treatment had pepped up the shine. Maybe it really was only thinning.
My dad was stretched out on a dialysis lounger, oblivious to the machines’ hum and the low chatter of people near us. I tucked a pillow behind his back and adjusted the blanket over his legs. Even with his eyes closed, I could see they were puffy. The skin on his hands were red from his persistent scratching of a growing dry itch problem. “I’m going to put mittens on you.” I had joked.
I signed into the dialysis center’s Wi-Fi and searched for Glamxhair. The site sold high-quality wigs and products to alleviate hair loss. I loved that. You didn’t stop hair loss, you “alleviated” it.
I took a selfie, uploaded it to the site, and tried on virtual wigs. My square face and brown eyes peeked out under blonde bangs. I clicked more styles: redhead, brunette, purple, shag, curls, soft waves, pixie. So many choices.
I clicked on the link for cancer haircare, and stole a glance at my sleeping father. He only had a light fuzz of baby fine white hair above his ears. A bald woman with a blank expression appeared on the screen. She had no eyebrows and her eyes and nostrils dared me to look away. Instead, I selected hats with hair and the same model, with a hint of a smile on her face now, sported a hat with hair coming out on the bottom. The wig hat description said, For when you’re on the go or need to feel more casual. Maybe a wig wouldn’t be so bad. I could cut my hair short and buy a few of them. I could become a different person whenever I wanted.
“Hey kiddo,” my dad said, waking up. He reached for his glasses resting on his lap. “Where’s your mother?”
I closed my laptop and turned to him.“Remember? She’s meeting the girls for lunch today.”
“Good. She needs a break from this place.”
“Do you want anything? I can pull up Netflix and find a TV show.”
“I’ll just nap. You go back to work. It’s nice they’re letting you work outside of the office.”
I hadn’t told my parents I was on FMLA after using all my vacation and sick leave. HR was kind. They could have fired me for poor performance. Instead, they allowed me to take leave “It’s not personal. We know about your dad.” It was fine. I could use the time to take some online courses, get to the gym more. I was thinking of changing jobs anyway.
Mia walked the aisles with me while I picked up what my mother wanted, and what I hoped my father would eat.
“Be thankful your company is big enough for FMLA. What did Corey say when you told him?” Mia said.
“He doesn’t know.” I snapped four bananas from a bunch, slipped them into a plastic bag, and investigated a carton of blueberries.
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re taking a break?”
“What happened?” She stopped and put her hand over mine pushing the cart.
“My hair happened.”
She followed me down the dairy aisle, my jackpot location–protein-rich yogurt, tangy cottage cheese, eggs. All easy to swallow and sweet enough to entice my dad’s diminishing appetite.
“He told me I left more hair on him than a dog.” I adjusted the ball cap on my head.
“You let him get away with that? Everyone loses hair. Like a hundred strands a day.”
I pulled her into the corner of the store with the dented and discounted items between the meat counter and the bakery. I removed my hat, tipped my head forward, and revealed the growing bald spots.
Her mouth hung open. “Oh wow, Heidi. You said you were losing your hair but –”
“Don’t say it. I know. Something is happening with my head.”
“What does that have to do with you and Corey?”
“I cried. He apologized, then said I’m always sad and spend all my free time with my parents. He wants to take a break. Honestly, he’s not wrong. It’s hard to have a boyfriend now. Especially one who’s needy. Look, more hair, just from taking off my cap.” I held up a few strands for her inspection.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“When would I do that?” We walked down the supplement aisle. “I read biotin is good for hair growth.” I shook a bottle and tossed one into the cart. “It can’t hurt. Maybe I should get a multi too.” I squatted to investigate the brands on the bottom shelf.
“Promise me you’ll make an appointment.”
“I’ll call someone. I don’t want my parents to see me bald.”
My fingers find the stitches on my scalp from last week’s biopsy. Dr. Bhatt did a good job of hiding it. The stitches itch, and I’m anxious to have them removed.
“Heidi Scotto,” a nurse called. I set down Real Simple. I’d been reading an article on how to clean out your medicine cabinet. The writer obviously didn’t live in my world where orange pill bottles battled for shelf space. I stood and followed the nurse into the exam room.
“Dr. Bhatt has your test results. Are you ready to have those stitches removed?”
I nodded at her put-the-patient-at-ease banter. The low exam table was the same orange as the dialysis center loungers. Why is everything in the medical treatment world orange?
Dr. Bhatt knocked on the door and greeted me with a smile. She pulled on a pair of gloves and finger-combed through my hair, inspecting my hairline.
“Are you losing as much as before?” she asked.
I sighed. “Even my gray hairs are falling out. Traitors, every last one of them.”
Dr. Bhatt’s own long dark brown hair shined like polished marble. She usually wore it in a top knot. Today, it was down and swung past her shoulders. She had beautiful skin too. But, she was a dermatologist.
She removed the stitches from the top of my head and rolled her exam stool in front of me.
“My hairdresser thinks I may have alopecia.”
“No. It’s stress,” she said.
I laughed. “Okay, thyroid issue then?”
“I’m serious. The biopsy shows no signs of disease, including alopecia. All indications are it’s a stress event.”
“That’s not a medical condition. That’s life.”
“It is medical,” she said. “Stress can have dramatic effects on your body. What’s happening in your life?”
I shrugged. “I’m fine.”
“How’s your job?”
“I’m taking some leave for a few weeks. It’s a good break.” I smiled.
“For a sabbatical, or a job search?”
“More like helping take care of my father.”
“How long has that been going on?”
I stared at the ceiling and counted the rings on the circular air intake vent. “About two years. He has cancer.” The word choked in my mouth.
Dr. Bhatt’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I think we found the problem.”
“I’ve been managing this for two years. Why is my hair falling out now?”
“The body is slow to react, but when it does, it can roar at you.”
I combed my hair behind my ears and regretted touching it as more hair came out. The anti-breakage treatment wasn’t working. I wanted to roar back like a full-maned lion.
“You’re having a shedding event,” Dr. Bhatt said.
“Like a dog?” Corey’s joke hit me again and hurt.
“You’re not a dog. When the stress ends, your hair will stop shedding. Then everything will go dormant, and you’ll see growth. It could take a year to eighteen months for it to reach a length you can style.” She pulled her own hair behind her neck as if hiding its luxuriousness from me.
“What do I do in the meantime? Take a yoga class, schedule a massage, try candle gazing, and call you in a month?”
“It may help,” she said. “Heidi, you need to understand, your body is telling you something is wrong. Hair loss is like a crack in a dam. You should schedule a complete physical with your primary care doctor. Come back and see me in three months.”
I rubbed my hand across my face to keep from crying. I wanted to push off from the edge of the orange bench and run. I sat quiet and nodded.
“I’m sorry about your father. What’s the prognosis?”
I touched the spot on my scalp where the stitches were, feeling the bump that remained from the procedure. “His doctor has recommended hospice.” It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud. I brush away another stray hair.
Sharon J. Wishnow is a writer from Northern Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Grief Diaries, UC Denver –The Human Touch Journal, Everyday Fiction, and forthcoming in Chroma and Coffin Bell. She has an MFA from George Mason University and has completed her first novel. You can find her online at www.sharonwishnow.com and on Twitter @sjwishnow.