A few days ago, I returned to the story of 2016 and wrote that Matt and I stood around the kitchen island and debated what he should do with his hair. I wrote that the hair loss made visible an invisible monster. But, I never wrote the conclusion to the story of that day, mostly, because the story didn’t end that day. It ended two years ago today.
On August 4, 2016, the radiation induced hair loss across the left side of Matt’s head was hard to miss and Matt made his choice. He decided to shave his head.
I wrote, previously, about the frenzy, the way once Matt and I made a decision, we had to act on the decision immediately. Matt’s decision to shave his head was marked by this frenzy. Once he’d made his choice, he had to go.
Before work, he went to a barber shop to have his head shaved. He found someone who opened early, and he’d planned to be done and at work before the majority of the other employees. But because luck wasn’t on Matt’s side, he was the fifth man in a line that had started forming before the shop opened. With one barber working, he waited for more than forty-five minutes for his turn. I remember how every extra second waiting for his turn churned up his nerves. I can only imagine how it must have felt to wait with the frenzy building up, alongside the anxiety and the unforgiving reality that he was at that barber because his body had been invaded by cancer. This wasn’t just a haircut. It was a haircut that could invite curious stares and questions and possibly, even pity—something Matt vehemently never wanted. To Matt, I think this felt like his public admission, a confession to everyone, including himself, that he had cancer.
After the haircut, Matt sent me a selfie. The bald look was certainly a change and the scar running across the front of his scalp was on full display. I told him he looked handsome. I have a feeling he wasn’t convinced. But, since hiding at home for the rest of his life wasn’t an option, he went to work—where he planned to hide in his office all day. But, again, luck is not something that followed us through this story. Matt’s plan was foiled by a poorly timed fire drill. Instead of hiding out the entire day, he was forced outside, to stand with all his colleagues, who at that point, didn’t know Matt had cancer, at all.
Someone—and I don’t remember who—approached Matt while they all waited outside. This person did not know what had prompted the radical haircut. This person had no reason to comment on Matt’s appearance. But this person walked by and said (something along the lines of): I like the new look.
I remember how much that offhand, casual compliment changed Matt’s whole day.
My memory of the story, and the text messages to support the story, ends there. But, somewhat coincidentally (and completely unexpectedly), a few weeks ago, G and H supplied the parts of the story I’d forgotten. They remembered the first time they saw Daddy with a bald head. They reminded me that Matt was already home when they got home two years ago today, and he greeted them out on the driveway with his new look. They reminded me that they were confused by the hair and the scar, but mostly just happy that he was home early. After they reminded me, I remembered what I’d forgotten. I remembered Matt walking down the front steps, his mouth open in a wide, whole-hearted smile, not a hint of self-consciousness on his face.
Cancer treatments caused Matt to lose his hair three more times. Once, he even lost his eyebrows. But hair, or the lack of hair, was never again an issue for him. He kept his head shaved, for convenience sake, for vanity’s sake (because he didn’t know what would grow back), and, I think, because he realized admitting he had cancer didn’t change the incontestable fact that he was still Matt, a guy who made his kids wild with joy simply by being home.
Today’s story isn’t about hope. The story of today is how a few casual, unplanned words changed the shape of a day, shined light on a moment overwhelmed by shadows. The story of today is the power of a few kind words.