Standing with the Strength of Maples
The sixty-somethings sip their glasses of wine in their booth while my mother shares a mischievous story about her grandchild. The server interrupts my mother to deliver the dinners. The women clank their glasses together and begin to eat. As my mother brings her fork to her mouth, her hair falls into her plate of chicken and mashed potatoes. Silence swells. The women stop chewing. Their eyes burn my mother’s vanity. Her retired piano fingers pick up her lock of pride.
My mother begins shedding her hair after her first chemotherapy, just as her oncologist promised. We were naive at first because her Greek ancestors gifted her abundant locks. She reschedules her wig appointment – this includes getting her head shaved. Cancer will strip her vanity. It is dire that I serve as the witness.
When the day arrives, Arianna has a fever and is irritable due to her four month shots. I cannot escape the guilt of leaving her, but I have no choice. Standing, I stroke her black hair. She nuzzles quiet and warm in my chest. My only daughter and I wait for my mother to pick me up. Growing up tough with three brothers, I never knew I ached for a daughter, until the moment her supple cheeks landed on my naked chest. The mother-daughter bond is an iron shield in battle. There are dents and scratches, of course, but it is unbreakable. I cradle her and gaze through our blinds.
The perfect Michigan October day. A few white clouds contrast against the crisp blue sky. Our vast maple tree has been set ablaze and steals the foliage show. Its golden crown offers generous shade over the yard. Its stoic beauty calms the torment inside my stomach as I watch. Flames dance downward and skirt around one another before settling on the grass. Soon, the fire will be extinguished and the maple tree will prevail, naked and empty. The skies will turn gray as the tree loses its exquisite nature. No one will stop to look. My mother pulls into the driveway, I hand my baby over to my husband, and we head south to the fancy wig salon.
In the confined room, I spot the black electric clippers on a high table near my mother. I do not want the red switch turned from “off” to “on.” The buzzing will eviscerate my mother’s spirit. Tony, the shaver, brings in the black cape that will be placed over my mother’s shoulders. It grants no super powers. She stares at herself in the center of the mirror – motionless. Her striking dark brown hair will be eliminated.
Up to this moment, I try to picture my mom bald. I laid awake in bed dreading this day. I think she will look like my Papou – her father. He was slim too, with the same oval dark eyes and olive skin. My mother is rare. True, she’s a head-turner, but her selfless soul is what makes you stay after being tugged in. Today, she changes. She is a woman, but cancer threatens to steal her womanhood.
The remaining seconds of the mother I know are fleeting. I clench my hands and pray for her courage – no one notices. I steady my eyes on the black clippers again. The clippers are cancer. Cancer doesn’t just destroy the body, it wreaks havoc on the soul. Time is almost up. My ears dread the buzzing from the clippers. “Are you ready?,” Tony asks.
“Yup,” my mom says.
Tony responds, “Some women choose to have their backs to the mirror and some…”
“I’ll face the mirror,” my mother interrupts.
This fortitude is not new. Cancer killed my mom’s mother when she had a two-week old baby, herself. She persevered. My mother saved me, her fourth child and only girl, not once – but twice. She slept in a chair while I was a frail six-year-old in the hospital for two months. I recall the fluorescent lights piercing my eyes and my mom throwing blankets and herself on top of me. She overcomes things. She is my angel.
Tony turns the clippers to “on” and a buzzing fills the room. A pesky bumble bee tries to locate a new flower to pollenate. My mom stares – emotionless. Tony separates and lifts the first chunk of my mom’s hair straight into the air. He places the clippers at the top of her forehead. The clippers stumble backward lifting the hair off of the head. Her scalp is gray-white with black and white sprouts shooting through. I wait. There is nothing. No wailing. No tears. No groaning.
My mother surveys the mirror. Tony places the thick hair segments onto a nearby table because her elegant leaves will be saved and made into a wig for another cancer patient. As my mom continues to examine the mirror, she is unwavering. She doesn’t need a dramatic moment. The blades are cancer’s ammo and they are constantly being reloaded. The thickness of my mom’s hair puts up a solid fight. The clippers continue to journey over her scalp – row by row. My mother’s head is first a crescent moon, then finally, a full moon. She is bald. Winter comes. But, the sun is still roaring.
Today, beauty has a sound – the buzzing of the clippers. We are frightened of it at first, but we discover that strength trumps beauty. The buzz fills her. My mom is new. After my mother earns her new faux leaves, we head to the local Jewish deli and enjoy my mom’s victorious meal – pastrami sandwiches.
I make it home before the kids’ bedtime. Swaddled in a cream blanket, I feed Arianna. We rock. As she sucks, her eyes flutter slowly before they shut for the night. My fingers scroll over her thick mane. My mother gifted my daughter her hair. Each strand is rooted. Arianna’s hair is today’s grace. I study her. Her petite nose breathes life in. Her rouged lips rest sealed and delicate. I never want to let her go. Nothing is more romantic than this moment at the end of this day. My mother and my daughter fill me. Arianna falls asleep. I bring her to my chest, patting her back. Embracing her, I inhale the baby detergent. I gaze at the cross over her crib and whisper, “Thank you.” I mean it. Silent energy is beaming out of me and filling every corner of the room. I hope it lands inside of my daughter.
I allow a tear to dampen Arianna’s cotton swaddle. She will grow and branch out too. And there will be phases where she will be exquisite, setting her whole world on fire. There will be other phases where she will be left feeling naked and empty. Cancer cut my mom’s hair, but she is still whole.
Spring comes. The leaf buds have swelled on the maple. The sap has already pushed itself upward. Arianna crawls through the grass. The purple ruffles on her bottom bounce. She stops and rips up a handful of grass pretending to eat it, but then tosses it upward. She places her hands on the shaggy bark of the old maple tree. Its rough exterior allows her to grip it. She pulls herself up. The tree permits her to stand. Over the months, the blackness of her hair fades into a light brown, it becomes her own. Clutching the bark, she smirks. Soon, she’ll be ready to let go and walk on her own, but for now, the tree steadies her. The cool May air blows through her budding hair. My mom’s hair grows too – gray and curly now. The wind wakes up our faces. We laugh as helicopters from the maple tree above skip and twirl downward to the ground. The leaves are now green. The tree is full again.
Angela Anagnost Repke lives with her family of four in Michigan. She is a former high school English teacher and has a degree in counseling, but is now back in the classroom as a student, earning a graduate degree in English concentrating on Writing and Rhetoric. She serves as the Managing Editor and Contributor to the Genesee County Moms Blog. Angela is passionate about the comradery of motherhood and hopes to unify women through her authentic writing. Her work has appeared in Her View From Home, Scary Mommy, and BLUNTMoms. Angela is currently working on a memoir.