To Dande who was not given the chance to wear her afro after chemotherapy.
I’m sitting in a cafe in Amsterdam on a Sunday afternoon. Slightly hung over from last night, I made my way to the laundromat and afterwards to a café to reward myself for leaving the house with a flat white and a piece of cake. Sipping on my coffee, I read the chapter abut hair loss in Emma Tarlo’s book Entanglement (2016, 285-313). She writes about a wig maker who specialized in wig-making for persons who experience hair loss due to different conditions, chemotherapy for treating cancer being one of them. Trained as a psychotherapist, the wig maker offers a holistic approach to hair loss by taking seriously the emotional impact that can come along with the experience of losing hair. He accompanies his clients through the process of adapting to their hair replacement, both emotionally and aesthetically.
Unexpectedly, the stories of the wig maker’s customers move me more than my current environment allows me to express. The wig maker talks about cancer patients who would rather die than loose their hair. And there’s a wife who tried to conceal her cancer and the concomitant chemotherapy and hair loss from her husband with the help of a wig. After his wife’s death, the husband called the wig maker to thank him and to confess that he knew about the disease and the wig from the beginning.
I don’t know why these stories move me to tears in a crowded café on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe it’s the hangover. Maybe it’s my Sunday afternoon mood. What I know is that the stories about cancer patients bring back memories of my aunt Andrea, whom I only used to call “Dande” – “aunt” in my South German dialect. For a long time during my childhood, I did not even know Dande’s name, because she was just my Dande. No further names for clarification necessary.
Dande died of cancer in 2011, the year in which I finished school. Her death left wounds in my family that probably won’t ever fully heal: My cousin, Dande’s daughter, who cannot marry, because the thought of a marriage without her parents present (both of whom died of cancer) diverges so much from what she had imagined as a child; my mother who still cannot talk about her sister-in-law’s death without her eyes filling with tears. But the story of my family and our coping with the immense gap that Dande’s death left behind is not the story that I want to tell here.
It is another story of loss that came back to me in a café in Amsterdam on a hung-over Sunday afternoon. The story of Dande’s hair loss. In contrast to the women in Tarlo’s book who consulted the wig maker, Dande never thought of having a wig – at least, not to my knowledge. After all, her bald head was only a temporary state, as she used to assure us optimistically (I can’t tell how much of her optimism was pretense. It helped me nonetheless). I remember her wearing some scarfs or a woolen hat, when leaving the house. But the image that I remember most clearly is Dande sitting in her chair in the living room or lying in her bed with her short, tousled hair sticking up in all directions.
One afternoon, when we stopped by for a visit – I think it was after her second round of chemotherapy – she proudly showed us the down that started sprouting on her head after she had lost her hair due to the toxins that were pumped into her veins to attack the cancer cells that had spread through her body. She made us touch her head and feel the downy baby hair. When I caressed her head with my hand, however, it was not the smoothness of her regrown hair that surprised me. I had to prevent myself from pulling away my hand, because I was shocked to feel the lumps on her scalp (which were somehow caused by the chemotherapy, as she explained).
Dande was still proud of her down. Like snowdrops introducing spring after a harsh winter, the down was a sign of bodily recovery for her. Dande told us that after chemotherapy the regrowing hair can have a totally different structure and color than what the person’s hair was before treatment. Or at least, there were some reported cases of such a radical change. Maybe she would end up with kinky, black hair, she joked in her red armchair, making us laugh at the idea of Dande with an afro. Dande never had the chance to find out how her hair would turn out. The cancer spread further in Dande’s body resulting in an intestinal obstruction which made her throw up everything that she swallowed.
In contrast to the hair of the women in Tarlo’s book, Dande’s hair – aside from the sprouting down – was never that much of a matter of concern, especially not during her last weeks amongst us. Only after Dande had passed away, her hair became an issue – together with her gaunt face and her emaciated body. I cannot remember much of the preparations for the funeral, but one discussion stuck in my mind. It was about which photo of Dande to place next to her coffin in the church. Only a few weeks before Dande’s death, my mum and my sister went to the photographer with her. I can imagine that it was one of the last days in which Dande felt well in her body (given the circumstances). Nicely dressed, with makeup put on and her (few) strands of hair done, she posed in the photos.
Even though there were these recent pictures of Dande, my uncle opted against having one of them in the church – it could be placed at the entrance, but not in the front where people would come to say their last goodbye. After all, a gaunt Dande with thin wiry hair was not the image that most of the visitors had in mind from their last encounter with Dande, my uncle argued. Before the cancer, Dande was much more well-rounded and had more, if not necessarily longer, hair. A photo in which she didn’t embody this healthy image could shock the visitors. Additionally, people would not want to remember Dande as a figure emaciated by the cancer and its aggressive treatment.
For me, instead, it is difficult to recall a picture of Dande other than the image that was placed at the entrance of the church: thin, with wiry hair, and a warm smile. The last time that I saw this smile was in the evening before Dande died. Lying in a hospital bed, she looked up to my mother and said: “Your son looks so intelligent with his new glasses.”
Tarlo, E. 2016. Entanglement: The secret lives of hair. London: Oneworld.