Every day I walk past it multiple times. That ziploc bag, sitting on the shelf downstairs next to your books, holding the only part of your body that is left still intact – a strand of your hair. Your gorgeous red hair.
Most days I just walk past, not opening it up. It just sits there on the shelf in a space protected from the dog.
This strand of hair has a story to tell. I can’t tell you how precious this strand of hair is for me. It was your unexpected gift to me, weeks after you had it cut off and more weeks after you died. And once in a while, when I open the bag and pull out your strand of her, closing my eyes, pressing it against my face, feeling its softness, the scent of your hair takes me back, let’s me imagine, just for a tiny moment, that you are still there. With me. Right there. Beside me. And as I take deep breaths, taking in the wonderful scent of your hair, feeling its softness against my lips, I feel so close to you. And it’s like it used to be, just for this tiny moment, the two of us so close.
And then it hits me with gut-wrenching force. That all I am holding, cradled in my hands, and touching and smelling and kissing is only one strand of your hair. And tears well up in my eyes. And my soul cries out. And I miss you more than I can say.
Then I put it back in the bag, this most precious gift of yours. Carefully zipping the bag so that I won’t lose any hair and to keep your scent with me as long as possible. And I fear that one day, I’ll open the bag and your scent will be gone.
But back to the story of your hair. You had gorgeous hair, lush, thick, and a beautiful golden red like glowing in the sun. People would come up to you to touch your hair, , without asking you, so drawn were they to it. You hated that. The scent of shampoo would linger in your hair forever. Your grad students would come up behind you sitting at your desk, smelling your hair and telling you how wonderful the scent was.
For a long time you didn’t care about your hair. Being a redhead made you feel different. As a kid others called you Pippi Longstocking. You hated it when people called redheads ‘ginger.’ Less than 2% of the world’s population have red hair. As a redhead and a lesbian you were a double minority. So when the doctor told us that you had a 10% chance of surviving the beast called cancer, we believed that would be you. After all, you were the 10%, right? We were wrong.
There were times in your life when you tried to color your hair. Blue, green, purple, but nothing would stick. The red too powerful. There were times in your life when you shaved your head and went bald, enjoying the freedom from your thick, heavy hair. The December before the spring of 2004 when we got together, you had shaved your head. So when I first saw you in March, your hair was still super short. So butchy. But it quickly grew.
For most of our together-life you kept your hair short. Then all of a sudden one day you decided to let it grow. Was that when the cancer in your body began to grow too? I wonder. Did your soul know that growing your hair long would be one of your gift to leave behind? When you were diagnosed, you decided to donate your hair. So that a child who’d need it would have a gorgeous wig. You invited people to come to the shaving “party.” For you, it was an act of empowerment. Your way of taking control of at least one part of your body when the rest was failing you so horribly. For me, it was traumatic. That day at the hair salon I hid behind my camera, taking photo after photo, documenting the whole process – before, during, after. Donna putting your hair in strands, tying the strands, cutting off strand by strand, shaving your head, until you were bald. There’s the photo of the two of us with my arms wrapped around you, my face a mask, trying to be so brave, trying desperately to hold on to you. At some point I asked you if I could keep a lock of your hair and you refused. I understood. And didn’t resist. I understood that giving me part of your hair would have meant admitting that we’d lost hope. That you would die. We couldn’t go there. Not even two weeks later you died in my arms. I remember stroking your head and feeling the stubbles that had already grown back.
Then the call from our son a few weeks later. He’d been to the hair salon and Donna had told him that she hadn’t donated your hair yet, needed a signature on a form from me. I couldn’t believe it. And I understood. This was a sign from you. Your gift to me. A strand of your gorgeous red hair, its scent taking me back. To you.