Maybe it’s all about detachment, impermanence.    Whatever you want to call it, the lessons you can learn from your hair, and its absence, definitely fall into the category of “Buddhist Opportunities” (a perspective so graciously offered by my dear friend Joy).

I had never considered hair my strong suit.  Yes, it was a pretty light brown, incredibly soft, and in recent years, naturally lit with compliment-drawing silver, gold and copper highlights.  But it was also fine, mostly straight without much body, and difficult to style (at least with the amount of effort and goo I was willing to apply, which wasn’t very much).  In fact, it was only in the months before being diagnosed with cancer that I, years after losing my last good hairdresser, once again found one whom I really liked.  And with her help, a hairstyle I loved.  Finally!

Then a few short months later, chemo.  And with that, baldheadedness.  Buddhist Hair Opportunity Number One.

Going bald was a big deal, and it wasn’t.  The anticipation was worse than the event.  My boyfriend and his kids helped me celebrate with a head shaving party.  Wearing crew cuts at the time, both kids did the honors and we went from ponytail to mohawk to buzz in the span of 24 hours.  In solidarity, Kevin buzzed his thick head of hair, too.  Over the next several days, as my ¼” fuzz got patchy and began to look unhealthy (imagine that!), we shaved my scalp as close as we could and left it at that.  Chemo took care of the rest.

I’m fortunate.  I have a great-shaped head.  I actually look good without hair.  Some said I could model.  As a bonus, I always wanted to shave my head.  For years I toyed with that desire.  But that was as part of a planned Buddhist Opportunity.  Something I could choose, and control.  Optional spiritual discipline.  Not something that demands your equanimity as it slams you upside the head.  Careful what you wish for.

Body hair was the next to go.  Who knew that all the different types of hair on a body (head, pubic, leg and arm, eyebrows, eyelashes) all had different rates of growth and subsequently different rates of loss?  Well, my doctor did, and maybe lots of people do.  But I’d never thought about it before.

Buddhist Hair Opportunity Number Two?  Pubic hair.  Except for a few stragglers—a very lean “Brazilian”—gone.  Granted, I didn’t miss having to address the escapees sneaking out the bottom of my bathing suit.  But I did have a hard time relating to this once again pre-pubescent body.  Who was this “tweener” in the mirror?  Yikes.  It was adolescent self-discovery all over again.

About three months into chemo, I noticed an odd sensation on my arms and legs.  I’d felt it before and wondered if it was some strange nerve reaction to the drugs.  Suddenly I realized, this is the feeling of freshly shaved legs!  Wow – I didn’t have any body hair!  Now I’m not a very hairy person to begin with, but discovering how much even fine blond down mediates our interface with the environment astonished me.  Buddhist Hair Opportunity Number Three was more about increasing awareness versus a forced letting go.  Ah, a moment of grace.

But lest I attach to that momentary joy, right around the corner was Buddhist Hair Opportunity Number Four:  the eyebrows.  One doc said I wouldn’t lose them.  Others said, oh yes you will.  Everyone was right, partially.  I didn’t want to lose my eyebrows, really didn’t want to lose them.  I even attended the beauty workshop at the Cancer Support Home primarily to learn to draw them on, should I need to.  Pleading with the Facial Hair Goddess was of no use.  My beautiful, healthy “Brooke Shield” brows gradually thinned out to a very sparse line.  My lashes did the same, leaving me with an oddly-spaced few on each upper lid.  Yet, even without the makeup pencil (which somehow I just couldn’t manage), I learned to be okay with looking like a reptile.

Of course, just as I got used to all this hairlessness, Buddhist Hair Opportunity (BHO) Number Five arrived:  re-growth.  You might not think it, but this phase requires detachment, too.  It’s a bit nerve-wracking to watch peach fuzz emerge from your scalp and have no idea what you will look like in a week, a month, a year.  Admittedly, tucked in between moments of desire and angst, was the thrill of seeing my baby lashes push out through their follicles.  It was like celebrating a newborn’s progress, every day a wonder to behold.

They say it often comes back thicker, curly, a different color.  It did.  I was hoping for red.  It was gray.  MAJOR Buddhist Opportunity.  Totally not fair.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, either.  Over the ensuing months, my hairdresser and I watched as my crop grew through curly (loved that and hated the day she cut it off – BHO #7), and from gray back to mostly brown.  It actually turned less gray than it was before I was ever diagnosed!  Yup.  One day when I walked in for my bi-monthly trim, Chrissy asked, “Did you henna?”  Nope.  “Is this unusual?” I asked.  “Very.”  (I attribute this regeneration to qigong practices I began post-chemo.  But more about that later.)

Today, two years after I’ve completed treatment, several haircuts and styles later, folks still regularly comment on the progress of my hair.  How fast it’s growing, how healthy it and I look, and how are you doing, anyway?  It’s not really my hair they’re assessing.  They’re checking to see if I’m as okay as I look.  Because, despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m still being identified by a disease.  I guess that’s the price of going public.  This is tough for one who has devoted her life to health and wholeness.  So whenever I’m asked, I get to bow once again before this razor-sharp teacher called Illness.  She who dispassionately strips us bare of all superfluities, both visible and invisible, hair and ego gone in one fell swoop.  Clearly, I haven’t yet reached enlightenment.  In spite of this moment’s full head of radiant hair, the Buddhist Opportunities still keep coming…