Everyone knows that chemotherapy makes your hair fall out. It’s one of those horrid facts that you just know without thinking. In the haematology block at Nottingham’s City Hospital this dark fact is in evidence everywhere – varying degrees of hairy and hairless heads, some swaddled in scarves or hats in an attempt to retain body heat.
My dad was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia in the summer of 2015, joining the hundreds of blood cancer patients treated and cared for by Nottingham’s haematology department each year. He became one of the many patients who, as if being gravely ill and feeling terrible wasn’t enough, endured the double whammy whereby the very drugs that are treating you make you feel like the undead and your hair falls out!
‘All of my body hair,’ my dad says, looking at me meaningfully.
Different chemotherapy drugs and different doses affect the degree of hair loss. No one knows for certain until it happens – some people lose every scrap. Despite being hairless everywhere else, dad was fortunate in holding onto his eyebrows and eyelashes. This tiny positive became a regular topic for black humour between my sisters and me. We decreed that dad’s chemo resistant brows and lashes were due to him having ginger hair. Chemotherapy was no match for his ginger gene superpower, we declared.
Black humour aside, it was upsetting to see a hairless headed dad. It made him look even more poorly and impossibly fragile. Without his hair he seemed to appear physically diminished, as if the chemo had somehow taken a chunk of his body along with the hair. Dad’s thick ginger hair has always been a defining characteristic, seeming to grow taller and wider rather than longer, when left to its own devices. This phenomenon is referred to by my own ginger offspring as a gAfro (pronounced ‘jAfro’), in deference to the impressive hair qualities of that particular Afro-Caribbean hairstyle when combined with ginger ‘big’ hair.
There must be some thick hair trait that runs through the family, passed down to my sisters and me by our parents and grandparents. We are essentially a hairy-headed bunch. The styles and shades vary but in basic terms, it is big hair. At mass each Sunday mum, dad, my three sisters and I would sit in a line, taking up a lot of pew, and were known as ‘the family with the hair’. I didn’t know about this title until years later – belatedly imagining the row behind us craning their necks around our manes, trying to glimpse the priest.
Although a no-hair dad was a distressing sight, it was more disturbing to see him minus his beard and moustache. A hat is an excellent disguise for a naked head, even if not its primary use, and so I suppose the eye is then drawn to any other differences on a well-known face. The only time we girls had ever seen dad smooth faced was in a photograph, taken in Yugoslavia when he was nineteen, with his friend Roger. As children it was incomprehensible that our parents were alive when we were not, let alone that dad had existed without a beard and moustache! The bare faced young man in that photo was so out of context with my childhood that it was almost impossible to believe it really was dad. It was to be almost fifty years later that my sisters and I would see the dad beneath the facial hair for the first time in our lives, thanks to chemotherapy – the ultimate close shave.
Dad and I sit, mugs of tea at the ready, either end of the settee, the one facing the French doors onto the garden. I am turned towards him at an angle, a jar of chocolate digestives balanced on the settee in the gap between us.
My three sisters and I grew up listening to dad’s stories of his travels to the Middle East on a motorbike as a very young man, and of his trip to Australia in an old ambulance, as a slightly older very young man. They were as familiar to us as the Ralph McTell and John Denver songs he sang and played on his guitar. And then out of the blue it is forty something years later and the stories have become tangled by time, and I can no longer sing along to ‘Streets of London’ because of the enormous lump in my throat, tears burning my eyes. In my head is the image of dad’s chemo-smooth face, alongside that of the clean-shaven young red-haired man in Yugoslavia, mid motorbike trip.
Stories should be re-told and tea should be sipped, on account of it being too early in the day for anything stronger, to remember and to make a note of the adventures of a young man, before marriage (just) and before finding a job that really lit his fire. Before he turned out to be a renowned violin maker. Before leukaemia.
I grin over the top of my mug at my hairy-headed again, hairy-faced again dad. Reaching over to the laptop, open on the small table at our knees, I press the audio record button.