Our usual family gatherings for Sunday dinner were filled with laughter, comfort food, good wine and lively conversation. It was a tradition with the Euker family that we all relished. This particular Sunday — Dec. 15, 2013 — was different, however. We had all gathered to decorate Christmas cookies, share a pot luck dinner and cut my hair. My chemotherapy had begun.
Our group first gathered in the family room where my two sisters and I began sharing stories of our mother, Gail McCredie Cunningham. She had died from lung cancer when we were young girls, and her death was devastating, not only because we lost our mother but also because the adults in our lives led us to believe that she would recover and come home. But, she didn’t. She died before any of us had a chance to say goodbye, and my sisters and I still yearn for that missed opportunity.
Although my cancer was in the early stages, I did not want my family to be shut out like my sisters and I were. I wanted them to travel my road alongside me because I needed their companionship and strength. So, they were all there.
The beginning of chemotherapy treatment for my breast cancer had occurred two weeks earlier, and I knew it would not be long before my hair would begin to thin and fall out. I had heard women’s stories about their hair shedding in their food, in the shower, on their pillows and everywhere else. I was worried about that as well as about looking bald and funny — my head is not my best physical attribute. I wanted to have some say over how I lost my beautiful hair; I wanted my family‘s help. I wanted them to cut my hair.
My niece, who owns a salon (and is the only one among us who knows anything about professional hair care), agreed to be the “head stylist.” As she sat me on a stool that Sunday, with a drop cloth underneath to catch my hair, my family gathered round. My niece took out her scissors and combs and patiently demonstrated for all how to cut hair properly and efficiently. When she was finished, she held up her scissors and said, “Who’s first?” The room was silent, but they were all there.
Finally, my two 8-year-old grandsons, cousins, volunteered to be first, and they each bravely (and probably with great delight) carefully cut off a piece of their Mimi’s hair. Then their sisters stepped forward and then my daughters, nephews, friends and my own sisters took their turns with a bit of fear and trepidation — but also great resolve. Some lined up for second and third turns, and, in about 20 minutes, my hair was pretty much gone except for a small puff right above my forehead — left for vanity’s sake.
The person who had the greatest difficulty cutting my hair was my husband — he and I both remember my long, silky, shiny ponytail when we were in high school and college; my curls during the ‘70s and my highlighted tresses during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Even my current gray bob was hard for us to lose. But he bravely took his turn.
My two pre-teen granddaughters then insisted I go into the bathroom with them so they could put makeup on me, “fluff my puff” with hair gel and bring me out for the “great reveal.”
The transformation was stunning. When I walked back into the room, I was received with cheering, clapping, hooting and a few tears. I felt like a princess — because, they were all there.
Then we all moved to the kitchen/family room area to listen to two my granddaughters play beautiful chamber music on their viola and violin, to decorate Christmas cookies and to enjoy another Sunday dinner together.
We were going to be OK.
My family was brave and very supportive that day in helping me begin my navigation of a scary and painful process. Chemotherapy is never easy, but the love and support I felt that Sunday bolstered my intentions and strength in facing my year of treatment.
Eventually the rest of my hair fell out, but the amount was negligible, and I thought I looked most delightful in the many hats people made and sent to me. I particularly loved the one my daughter-in-law, Carrie, made for me. That hat sits on the head of the teddy bear I was given during my recovery, in a chair right in front of my fireplace. Now, nearly five years cancer free, I still look at it every day and remember that they were all there: Carl, Marjie, Lynne, Katie, Stephanie, Keith, Carrie, Michael, Marne, Abigail, Carson, Hannah, Ethan, Alicia, Linda and Tina.
My family, my support, my champions.
Susan Cunningham Euker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired Hereford High School teacher.