October 20, 2016

Sixth grade. Walking down the hallway of the school that still seems so big. Binder clutched close to my chest, maneuvering my way through the halls, trying not to get knocked over by dozens of kids twice my height. Bell ringing, hallway clearing. A late pass scrunched in my fist. I can breathe again.
Administrator looming like a hawk circling its prey. Her voice, dripping with sugary sweetness: “Now, hon, you know there’s no hats or hair coverings allowed on school grounds, except for religious purposes. You’re going to have to take it off.”
I will never forget the day I found out. My mother sat kitty-corner from me at our kitchen table, her grave face contrasting with the watery February sunlight streaming through the front windows. I don’t know where my younger siblings were. All I remember was her and me.
“It’s okay to be sad,” she said to me, her voice breaking. “Take the time to be sad now. But once you’re done being sad, I need you to pick yourself back up and be strong. We’re going to get through this.”
I buried my face in her shirt. She wrapped her arms around me, and I breathed in her sweet smell, like flowers and honey, and cried.
Tugging the scarf from my head. Letting it droop around my neck, limp and still. An approving nod. Turning my back, making my way through the hollow halls towards class.
A few weeks later, I rapped on the front door with my signature knock. My mother swung it open, a bright smile on her face.
“You’re home! How was school?” she asked, stepping aside to let me by.
“Fine,” I replied, dropping my bag on the rug by the door. “You cut your hair!”
“Do you like it?” she questioned. She fluffed it a bit. “I was going for the Emma-Watson-esque pixie kind of look.”
“It looks great!” I replied. “Super cute. What made you cut it?”
“Oh,” she said, her smile fading a little. “Short hair isn’t as noticeable when it starts to fall out.”
Entering the classroom, head down. Handing the pass to the teacher, who gives a soft smile. Sitting down next to a friend, who sees the scarf round my neck
The whispered question: “Isn’t that one of your mom’s headscarves around your neck? Why don’t you have it on?”
My little sister gripped my mother’s fingers tight, as my two brothers and I sat at her feet. It was a bit of a squeeze for six people, even in the master bathroom, but we managed.
“You ready?” my dad asked, raising the razor above her head. Her hair was already patchy.
Better to shave it off in one go than wait for it to die slowly, she had said.
My mother gave a single nod in response. She gave my siblings and I a brave smile as the razor began to hum and the first of her beautiful, soft brown locks tumbled to the floor.
I couldn’t do it. Snatching the lock of hair from the cold tile floor of the bathroom, I fled.
Glancing up to be sure we weren’t scolded. My hushed reply: “Administration stopped me in the halls. Apparently the no-hats-in-school rule applies to headscarves as well.”
Her expression is outraged
I came home one day to find my mother wrapped up in blankets. Her newly-bald head was concealed beneath a patterned scarf, wrapped like a little hat. Her face looked pale and sick.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she said, pulling the blanket a little tighter. “Chemo sucks. They gave me meds, but I still feel terrible. And I’m freezing.” She shut the door and collapsed onto the couch, her eyes closed.
Her special necklace, engraved with all our birth dates, jingled around my neck as I leaned over he . She wasn’t allowed to wear it during chemo, so she had given it to me for safekeeping. Wordlessly, I pressed a kiss to her cold cheek, and went to put away my backpack.
Sitting through the rest of the period, silently doing our work. My friend shooting me upset glances whenever I look up. Bell ringing, rustles of students packing up and reentering the rushing river of the halls.
Teacher coming over to where my friend and I dutifully organize our things. Her gentle voice, asking if anything was wrong. My friend, starting to speak; my hand, stopping her, though I give her a grateful glance. My shaky voice, spilling the whole story.
We weren’t alone. We had friends who brought us dinner, who drove my siblings and me to our activities, who took us out on the weekends so my mother could rest. We had family, who were always just a phone call away, who sent their love to us in the mail. My mother even found a website-builder that allowed her to create a page on which she could request what aid she needed of those who wish to assist. But it was still many long months of my mother feeling tired and sick and small. As the weeks stretched into months, her collection grew: soft, vibrant fabrics with which to cover her always-cold head. All four of us kids wore her kerchiefs, as though they were just any other item of clothing, a sock, or a pair of jeans. I even wore one when testing for my junior black belt alongside my brother, the culmination of five years hard work. Even with all her own struggles, my mother was right there, cheering us on.
The teacher’s patient listening. Her immediate response when I am done: “That is absolutely ridiculous. I’m sure she just didn’t know the situation. You are absolutely allowed to wear that scarf in support of your mom. And I will be having a conversation with the main office about this.” Her voice, trailing off as she mutters to herself; her caring wave, telling us we can go.
It’s been four years now since that first diagnosis, almost to the day. My mom has been officially cancer-free for just about three of those years. She still sees her oncologist every few months, but the visits are now just a little nuisance, a ripple in the river of our busy lives. The words ‘chemotherapy,’ ‘radiation,’ ‘non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,’ are now things of the past. Her hair has grown back, thin and brown, just as it was before. I like to braid it when I can, though like most of the women in our family, it’s so thin that it’s hardly worth trying. She is back to packing lunches and discussing novels, driving us to activities and cheering at sports games every weekend. Our year of headscarves and medication is done.
In a far corner of her closet, a pile of soft folded scarves sits, gathering dust.
Slipping back into the hallways, friend at my side. Waving as we part ways at the end of the hall. And as I head up the stairs to my next class, pulling my scarf back atop my head where it belongs, and holding my head up high.
Zoë Mertz