That Time I Was Shaving My Mother's Head

The surprising things I learned during my mom's last month with breast cancer

You know that thing where you’re shaving your mother’s head, and you thought it was going to be kind of a big emotional deal but it turns out to be almost pleasant? Totally happened to me a few years ago.

See, I felt bad for the people at Fantastic Sam’s (who were reportedly great and gracious the three previous times chemo had made her hair fall out) for having to deal with the emotional heft of shaving the head of a terminal cancer patient along with all the other crap they must put up with.

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Also, it just seemed like the sort of duty for family. In this case that meant me—the middle of her five children—who was living back in her condo at age 38 since my wife and I separated. She’d been helping my broke ass out, but when her breast cancer returned for its third and last round she became the helped, and I the helper.

So I was thinking this haircut ritual was going to be difficult and full of tears and much like some sort of Mary and Jesus and Joan of Arc scene from a Renaissance painting. And I’d been bracing myself for it since I told her I would do it earlier in the week, and I even talked about it to my therapist, who, of course, agreed it would be a lot to handle emotionally.

It wasn’t. Not in the least. It felt like a perfectly ordinary thing to be doing on an autumn afternoon...

She is sitting in a folding chair that barely leaves enough room for me in her condo’s closet-sized bathroom. I’m standing behind her running the clippers in lawnmower rows. We’ve both acted out this scene dozens of times before, we’ve just switched roles. She’s always been the barber, I the customer. It seems only right to return the favor. And we have the same safe, relaxed intimacy as all those other times.

The main conversation topic, as with most haircuts, is haircuts. Whose is easy to cut (mine). Whose is hard (my little brother's).

I remain worried, though, that I’m going to botch it somehow. That turns out to be impossible. The hair clearly wants to come out. It feels like I’m wiping it off instead of cutting it.

“It’s going to be called You Learn Nothing From Cancer,” she says.

She used to say she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes sprinkled over Tom Selleck. We weren’t able to work that out.

The talk, eventually and inevitably, shifts to the cancer. We’ve gotten used to talking about it with a necessary dose of dark humor.

She says she wants to write a book. She was as positive and self-helpful a person as I’ve ever known, the kind of woman where people you’ve never met come up to you to say she was a hero and inspiration to them.

But she’d gotten really sick of the pink preciousness surrounding cancer, and the de facto romanticizing of this suckiest of sicknesses.

She had special venom for the idea common among people who’ve had cancer scares but not actually the real thing, that “the worst part is not knowing” whether you’ve got it or not. “There is something worse,” she once wrote: “Knowing.”

But it turns out I, in spite of our joint cynicism, learned plenty during her last months.

Let me share a half dozen.

1. How to work an oxygen tank, with all its valves and knobs and levels and flammable gases. I can’t express enough what an achievement this was for someone like me, who often has to be reminded to breathe.

2. When dealing with the crowded hell of an emergency room always loudly say “cancer” before anything else, even if you or your mom is actually there for a broken finger. If you can, throw in the words “Stage 4,” which is the best kind. For this situation, anyway. Combine that with a woman wearing a headscarf in a wheelchair struggling to keep her head up, and suddenly you’re the biggest celebrity at the hot Hollywood club—shuffled in past the rope and through the VIP entrance. Normally this would win scowls from the people with brutal flus and snapped limbs who’d been waiting all night. But toward the end they’d see her and think, “No, you go. Please, I insist. I’m good.”

3. Hospital gift shops are good places to find rare classic candies. Mom had a constant hunkering for Big Hunks during her chemo, and I was constantly sent to fetch them. “And I don’t mean Tom Selleck," she might have said 30 years earlier. She used to say she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes sprinkled over Tom Selleck. We weren’t able to work that out.

4. Bucket lists are bullshit. People with very little time left generally want as many more normal days as they can get. They long for the ordinary. Their lives are extraordinary enough.

5. The first known documented case of breast cancer was a queen in ancient Egypt. And our means for treating it—blast it with chemicals or cut off body parts—haven’t really changed in more than a century. And the Pap smear was invented by a doctor who began with an enthusiastic fascination with guinea pig vaginas and ended with a test that saved thousands of lives. These and many other fascinating facts can be found in Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddharta Mukharjee. I recommend reading it immediately, before you deal with the consequences of cancer—instead of after, like I did.

6. Snoring can be the world’s sweetest sound, even when it’s coming through the walls of your bedroom, because it means the one you worry about is both finally asleep and still alive.

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We’re almost done now, I’m scraping off the last strands of hair.

She tells me a work friend's mother has died from cancer. She’d gone home from a hospice to die there in peace, and mom’s friend said it had been such a beautiful scene, with all her mother’s children lovingly surrounding her as she faded away.

"F*** that,” mom said. It was the lone F-bomb I ever heard her drop. She laughed to hear herself say it. “I want to be in a hospital, surrounded by professionals, not you people.”

She died less than a year later, in her bedroom, with all her children lovingly surrounding her as she faded away.

I think she was cool with it.

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