Before she started, Nancy put her hands on top of my head and closed her eyes for a few moments. The warmth of her palms penetrated the wisps of hair still loosely attached to my scalp and suffused me with a measure of calm about a procedure for which I felt far from ready.
“Do you mind if I pray over you?” she asked. I appreciated the asking; Nancy is a Muslim and I am a Jew, but I was in no position to hedge my bets – all prayers are gratefully accepted.
It was only a few days before my second chemotherapy session and my hair was falling out rapidly. Feeling pretty well, I had been out to dinner with my friend Brain the evening before and he had reached over and pulled a hair out of my wine glass. It was unnerving. I called Nancy that night and she agreed to come over right away.
Nancy Emanian, who works at Images Salon in Chevy Chase, MD, has been cutting, coloring and styling hair forever, and specifically cutting my Maryland Mom, Ellie’s, hair for upward of twenty years. I visit Ellie and Steve every summer when we are in the U.S. and upon their suggestion, I always get a mid-summer haircut from her. When Ellie called Nancy to tell her that I was staying with them for an extended period, and the reason, she immediately offered to come to Ellie’s house and shave my head when the time was right.
Ellie set a sheet out to cover the kitchen floor and put a chair in the middle of the sheet. Nancy put a cover over me, part of a kit she had taken home from the salon in order to meet me. Before I sat down, Nancy reminded me it was Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims. Nancy is from Iran, and her culture and language and religion are very much a part of her everyday life, even in suburban Washington DC.
Nancy’s voice is low and she sometimes has a way of slurring English words together. She has a heart of gold, and I always feel like I’m her most special customer that day. I imagine every one of her clients feels that way. But that day she and Ellie were both focused just on me and making this experience as painless as it could be. I sat down on the chair.
After she had her hands on my head, she pulled out her scissors. She murmured a lot as she worked, and the room was pretty quiet, save for some classical music suggested by my friend Saori that I put on my iPod. She first used the scissors to take off as much hair as she could. I could tell that she was just pulling on some of it and it fell out into her hands. Every now and then she would stop, lean in toward me, and caress my shoulder or my head as she prayed.
At first the tears leaked out of my eyes as Nancy worked. My hair. It felt like my last vestige of “normal” was being taken away from me. I already had body problems. I had the port protruding from the right side of my chest. I always had a mark on my arm from blood being taken. My skin was so dry it was flaking regularly. And for the first time in my life, and hopefully my last, I was too thin. In the first weeks of being sick, eating was simply not an option. Everything made me feel stuffed or sick. Then the after-effects of chemo made everything taste metallic, so I didn’t eat much then either. Taking a shower had become a nightmare because I didn’t want to touch or look at my body anymore. My dear husband solved part of that problem by buying me the largest shower “puff” he could find and a lilac scented bath scrub. Bless him, the puff was even purple, my favorite color.
But Nancy didn’t let me cry. She caressed my head and my shoulders, murmuring still in Farsi, her hands still warm. Ellie stepped in front of me, too and held both my hands in hers. She nodded at me. Ellie nods at me to reassure me and with her reassurance and strong belief, I really have no option other than to take a deep breath and nod back. It’s like a signal between she and I. She signals to me that I’m okay – that I’m going to be okay. Through all of this, that’s how she has handled it, and this is why I love her so much. I’m always okay in her eyes, which makes me believe it for myself.
Minutes later when Nancy said her Amen (I’m not sure of the proper form in Farsi), kissed my forehead and resolutely plugged in the razor, I was no longer afraid. She shaved my head down to a nub, all while exclaiming over the perfect shape of my head. Ellie said she couldn’t believe how cute I looked without hair.
With the two of them telling me how adorable I was, I did take a look in the mirror pretty quickly. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. But before I could stand in front of the mirror too long, Ellie and Nancy were both shooing me out, urging me to take a quick shower, and then bring my wig downstairs for Nancy to style.
What happened next was the real gift of the day. I showered, put on a little makeup and a new dress my Aunt Helen had sent as a treat for me. I put on the wig and Nancy touched it up a little so it fell neatly around my face. Both Nancy and Ellie were still exclaiming over how good I looked, and it didn’t even matter if it was true or not, they both made me believe that I was attractive no matter what. As a bonus, I brought a scarf downstairs, and Nancy wrapped it around my head and showed me how to twist and tie it properly.
Nancy took what could have been a nightmare experience and made it into something kind and gentle, and even loving. She brought a feeling of grace to the whole procedure. I will never forget it.