My mom’s hair had been falling out and growing back all her life. When she was 40, it all fell out and it never came back. It had come out in patches, so we barely noticed when she went from a head of mostly-hair with bare patches to a bare head with hairy patches. Later still, it wasn’t even that.
Painful cortisone shots in her scalp coaxed alien white fibers forth, but they were so brittle they broke off in her hands. A stinky foam her doctor prescribed did nothing but make her head smell like stinky foam. She deemed the cost of oral prednisone too high—it turned her cruel, she said, it made her yell because it felt good to her to see people hurt and unhappy. And so she got a catalog with Dolly Parton on the cover and bought sensible short wigs on sale at two for $69. Her brother had been bald for years and wore expensive works of human hair that you’d never guess weren’t growing from his head; Mom said she didn’t need anything so fancy. She’s not trying to fool anybody, she says, it’s just that seeing a bald lady makes people uncomfortable.
Her wig comes off the moment she sets foot inside the house. My dad says she looks beautiful without it, and he’s right.
She has always said it was just hair. She has always said she doesn’t feel any less beautiful; she likes the way she looks without hair.
And I believed her. Until the day my husband noticed my first bald spot.
I’d always known I could lose my hair. Alopecia runs in families, and autoimmune disorders run rampant in mine. I always thought I wouldn’t mind my scalp letting go. I’d shave what was left and wear hats or scarves or big pink and purple confections from the costume shop. Or else I’d wear my head naked if I wanted to—unlike my mother, I do not care if other people are comfortable.
“Is it a bald spot, or just a thin spot?” I asked my husband. He placed his cool fingers on the spot where the hair wasn’t, and then I knew.
If you’d asked me a minute before how I’d feel about a bald spot, I’d have shrugged. I’d have told you that it didn’t matter, that it was just hair. But as I reached back, as my husband guided my fingers to the silver-dollar sized naked spot, my stomach dropped and my skin went bumpy like it does the moment I see a cop car’s lights in my rearview. The spot’s nakedness felt obscene. I hated that it was there and I hated that I cared it was there.
“Are you sure it’s not just a thin spot?” my mom asked. Mom’s voice gets high and trembly and she babbles when she’s upset, like I do. “Lots of women’s hair thins out when they get older. Your Aunt Margie has thin spots and she’s fine. It doesn’t mean she’s going bald.”
I showed my mom the spot and she exhaled.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh. When do you see the doctor?”
I told her I didn’t plan to see a doctor, that I didn’t see the point.
“I lost my hair years ago,” she said. “They probably have way better stuff now. Science is amazing. There’s no sense in not trying.”
So I went to the doctor. I said no to shots. The thought of needles in that tender naked place made everything inside me shudder. I said no to stinky foam. I said no to oral prednisone—I’m mean enough already. “Then I don’t know what else I can tell you,” the doctor said.
“I just came here for my mom,” I said, and he nodded knowingly.
“Is it growing back?” Mom asked. “I was talking to one of the ladies in my church group, and you know, they always ask about you. And anyway, one of the ladies, she has thinning hair, and she just swears by emu oil, of all things. I asked her if it smells bad and she said sure, but it works and it’s made of real emu if you can believe it, and you just put it on your bald spot twice a day. But don’t stop using it if it doesn’t work at first. It takes months, sometimes.”
She paused. “Are you all right?” she asked. Her voice sounds guilty—as if she ripped those hairs out of my head with her own hands.
I’m all right. But I’m a lot less all right than I thought I’d be.
I didn’t try her church friend’s emu oil. If I bought everything her church friends swear by, I’d have a house full of snake oil and an empty bank account. But I tried nearly everything else. Everyone who knew wanted to help, and I didn’t want to let them down. Prenatal vitamins worked, after a fashion. The hair on my head did not grow back, but my chin whiskers had never been so long or plentiful. The three-step hair regrowth miracle that my stylist recommended did nothing but smelled nice. I went so far as to buy henna, but the mix looked so much like a tub of goose shit I couldn’t force myself to smear it on.
And then the spot grew back in on its own.
I get them all the time, now, the spots, and they always feel so much more momentous then they are—like a tiny sore on your tongue that takes up every ounce of your awareness. They come and they go, and sometimes I comb my hair over them and sometimes I don’t. When the hair comes back, it’s not quite the same color or texture as the hair around it. Sometimes the hairs are white, or even clear, and they break like sugar glass in my hands.
And someday I may have mostly-hair with bare patches that slowly becomes a bare head with hairy patches. And in this moment, I think that it won’t bother me, but I know better.
About the Author
Brigid Brockway is a technical writer and MFA student studying at Ashland University. Her work has been featured on National Public Radio’s This I Believe series and in the book This I Believe II. She lives in Canton, Ohio, with her husband and two dreadful cats.