Mom had beautiful hair. From an early age, she loved trying out different styles and trends. Looking at pictures of her from childhood to middle age was like thumbing through a hair-styling magazine in a beauty salon.
When she was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of forty-eight, our family was devastated. Mom was especially dismayed when the neurosurgeon told her they would have to shave her head in the operating room.
My mother was a simple woman, born and raised in the foothills of Ohio in the 1940's. Times were tough and she enjoyed few luxuries growing up. But the one thing she treasured and spent considerable time and effort on was her hair.
As a small child, she sported a short pixie cut with razor-straight bangs. Then came barrettes and hair bands in grade school. As a teenager, she graduated to long brunette locks with a side part and gorgeous waves. She was rocking the Cindy Crawford look before Cindy was even born!
My mother never finished high school. At seventeen, she met my father, who was a submarine sailor in the United States Navy. After a whirlwind courtship they eloped, and over the next thirty-one years, my father took my mother all over the world and did his best to spoil her.
One of her favorite ways to pamper herself was going to a hair salon, something her family couldn’t afford when she was young. Over the years, there were pin curls and perms, bouffants and bobs, and an unfortunate wedge in the 1980's that Mom couldn’t grow out fast enough. The one thing she didn’t do to her hair was change the color. Her dark mahogany brown was a prettier shade than anything from a bottle, with auburn highlights in the summer from days spent on the beach and gardening in the sun. She gave in a bit however in her forties – “just a wash” – to cover those dreaded grays.
The night before her surgery, I spent extra time with Mom, brushing her thick, luxurious hair while she shed more than a few tears.
After her operation, she woke up in the intensive care unit with a blue surgical bonnet covering her head. Once she got her bearings, the first thing she did was yank off the bonnet and ask for a mirror. She stared at her reflection for a long time, gingerly running a hand over her bare head, careful not to touch the railroad track of staples and sutures on the right side. Then she dropped the mirror on the bed and asked us to put the cap back on.
“It’ll grow back,” I reassured her.
In her drug-induced stupor, she only nodded and said, “Okay.”
A nurse came into the room and handed my father a clear plastic bag. “The scrub nurse in the O.R. saved this for you.”
It was Mom's hair.
I don’t know what prompted the nurse to do that—no one asked her to—but I’m so incredibly glad she did. Contrary to our hopes, the subsequent chemo and radiation treatments left Mom with permanent hair loss; only a few wispy strands grew back. My father spared no expense in finding her two of the finest wigs money could buy. But it wasn’t the same.
Mom lost her battle to cancer a year later, but I still have a piece of her with me. I’ve kept it for more than twenty years now, wrapped in tissue paper and tucked away in my bureau drawer. Once in while I take it out, and the scent of my mother comes back to me all over again, reminding me of everything good about my childhood and what a wonderful, giving person she was.
It’s not your typical keepsake, but it means more to me than the trinkets or jewelry or any material possession Mom handed down to me. I am so thankful to that scrub nurse who thought to sweep this treasure from the OR floor.
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