The Beauty in Her Baldness: Why My Mother Was Still Radiant with Cancer

“Beauty doesn’t come from physical perfection. It comes from the light in our eyes, the spark in our hearts, and the radiance we exude when we’re comfortable enough in our skin to focus less on how we look and more on how we love.” ~Lori Deschene

For as long as I can remember, my mom had long shiny silky black hair down to her knees. It was magical in the way that it attracted people and inspired curiosity and connection.

Everywhere we went, strangers approached her, usually timidly at first with a brief compliment, and then, after receiving her signature friendly head nod and open smile, they relaxed and the questions and comments would pour in as if an unspoken invitation to connect was made and accepted.

“How long did it take you to grow your hair?”

“How long does it take to wash it?”

“It must take forever to dry.”

“Can I touch it?”

“Wow, it feels like silk! Annie, come feel her hair!”

“Does it ever get caught in anything?”

“You must spend a lot of money on shampoo.”

Regardless of the comments or the duration of the conversation, everyone always walked away smiling, their step a little livelier, as if the world had suddenly become a better place.

My mom has a warm, open aura about her. When we’re out in public, she has a way of making people feel instantly valued and appreciated. My sisters and I call it “mom’s juju,” some kind of mystical power that brings out the good in everyone and everything.

She makes eye contact with strangers and if someone doesn’t avert their eyes away quickly, she nods her head slightly, as if bowing down to them in respect, and offers them a big, generous smile that immediately warms them, causing them to smile back.

She has a radiant inner happy glow that’s contagious, and over my fifty years of knowing her, I’ve witnessed people shift from closed off and rigid to open and free in a swift, instantaneous moment. It’s almost as if they’ve suddenly been released by a heavy clamp that was holding them down and they stand up taller, happier, lighter… even if only for a moment.

Mom’s juju makes people come alive.

It’s ironic that she’s an introvert like me, and I often think about this when I’m out in public.

I confess that I go into “robot mode” where I forget I’m human and that everyone around me are humans too. I usually do this when I’m short on time and have a specific, focused goal, like grocery shopping.

I avoid eye contact and deliberately close off my energy, especially when I don’t want to be approached, bothered with small talk, or exchange energy with others. I just want to shop; I don’t want to connect, chat, or stay any longer than it takes me to get my food and leave.

But my mom, she’s different. She reminds me that I love people and enjoy connecting with them too. She reminds me that it’s more important to connect soul to soul, human to human, than to check off that next thing on my to-do list. She reminds me of the true meaning of the word, “Namaste,” and is the living, breathing embodiment of it.

The divine in me sees the divine in you.

When she nods her head upon greeting someone, she’s bowing to the divine in the other person.

Most people think she’s bowing because it’s an Asian tradition, but to my mom, it’s more than a rote action imposed by a tradition, it’s a gesture of genuine love and respect because she truly does recognize the divine in everyone. And in her recognition of them, they too recognize it in themselves, even if only for a moment, even if they can’t explain it or understand it. They feel different after having the exchange with her.

My mom’s hair was often the icebreaker for this exchange. It provided an opening for people to approach her.

Like the sirens in Greek mythology whose singing lured unwary sailors on to the rocks, her hair lured people into a glimpse of their own divinity. They thought they were drawn to her hair, but they were drawn to their own beauty and divinity inside them. The hair was just the seductive song.

No one knew this, of course, not even my mom.

To my mom, her hair became something that defined her and her beauty. In a world that has the capacity to tear down anyone’s value, my mom’s hair made her feel unique, exotic, special.

She enjoyed the attention that people lavished on her hair, and eventually, her self-worth became wrapped up in it, in the same way she would wrap her hair around her neck several times when she was cold.

In late 2011, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Beyond the fear of dying, my mom said that the idea of losing her hair was more difficult than having cancer, and she visualized not only surviving cancer, but surviving it with all her hair intact, despite what the doctors and nurses said.

If anything could break the rules of science and chemotherapy induced hair loss, we thought, mom’s juju could.

But after several weeks of chemo, her beautiful long hair started falling out in clumps. It left bald spots that made her look even more sickly and frail, and we realized there are some things mom’s positive juju couldn’t affect.

Cancer has a way of ravaging you and it doesn’t care who you are or how you feel about it

On one ceremonious and tearful morning, my mom surrendered to cancer’s command and asked my oldest sister to shave her head.

It was an emotional, traumatic, and beautiful moment of loss, acceptance, and renewal, all swirled into one, as she watched her hair fall from her head onto the floor, piece by piece, like pieces of her identity falling away from her, and in its place, something different.

Something clean and pure and unhidden.

She looked in the mirror and saw herself for the first time—the person she was without the thing that she’d thought made her, well, HER. There was a bald woman staring back at her and she looked even more special, unique and beautiful.

I don’t know what my mom was expecting to see after losing her hair. Perhaps there was a part of her that didn’t expect to see anything, as if once she lost her hair, she’d somehow cease to exist. Her identity had been so entwined with her hair that she thought she might be gone too, once the hair was gone.

But she wasn’t. She was still there. She survived.

This realization freed my mom. She no longer wrapped her identity (and uniqueness and beauty) around her hair. Cancer made sure of that, it had given her no choice. Any illusion of an old, outworn identity had been swept away with the dead hair on the floor and tossed in the trash.

She found her new identity—an identity that was based off her inner beauty, not her outer beauty. She discovered she was unique and beautiful without it, and she radiated an inner knowing of this so much so that people started complimenting her on her baldness.

And she responded with the same signature head nod and grin, but this time, as a free woman, no longer bound by physical illusions of beauty.

She had become truly free.

This was the gift of mom’s cancer.

Cancer has a way of ravaging your false identities and reminding you of what’s real and true.

Now, eleven years later and cancer free, my mom’s hair has grown back. It’s not the same as it once was, thick and shiny black silk. It’s now thin and gray.

But a renewed person has emerged, with an even more powerful and radiant juju, and the beauty inside her shines brighter than ever.

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