For the last five years I have worn my hair long, thick and wavy, half-way down my back. I put it in ponytails, or I wear it down, or I bundle it in a bun. I just turned 11.
But, I recently discovered I have liver cancer. Which was a real pain for me, because I have never had anything like that before. I knew I would lose my hair. A couple weeks after starting chemo, it began: first a little bit, mostly in the shower; then losing big, big chunks of hair.
Quickly, it got to be just too much. So I ended up going to a barber in my town. (My parents called in advance, and they told us we could come after closing time, without others in the shop.)
The barber was a woman named Rosa. When I got there she said she would cut off my ponytail, which was big for me because I haven’t had my hair that short in a very long time. But I let her do it without a second thought. Soon enough, I had hair as short as I had when I was 5, when I had a bob. I hated that bob.
Then she began buzzing my head. I thought, “Would I look the same? Would I look different? Would I recognize myself ?”
I was turned away from the mirror so I didn’t see what was going on. But my mom did. She kept taking pictures. And she looked very happy, so that was encouraging. When the barber was done, I looked at myself. It was very strange. I couldn’t get used to it.
When she was finished, she washed my head, like I had always done at all my hair cuts, just like it was a trim, or a little cut.
But it wasn’t. It was full on bald. With a little bit of buzz. In the morning when I woke up I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I took a picture and I thought, “Will I ever get used to it?” My friends said it was cool. My friends said I was brave. (My dad had said that too, but he was already bald.)
Most girls at school have long hair and put it back in ponytails like I always did. Of course, I haven’t gone to school for awhile. My sister, Hana, who is 6, still has long hair. Long curly hair. As I feel her hair, I can still feel my own. But it was very exciting for Hana to brush the tiny hairs on my head back and forth because she thought it was like a big fuzz ball. Which it is.
Once I went back to the hospital for chemotherapy, I noticed all the other people with cancer, who had let their hair thin out or shaved it like I had. And I knew I didn’t look that different from them. But I didn’t feel the same as them. I didn’t want to go through the same thing. I didn’t think it was fair.
What wasn’t fair? I don’t know. Everything. Losing my hair. Cancer.
But I’m comfortable now with the bald head. Today I posted myself on TikTok. And I danced. On screen.
Orli Wildman Halpern is in the 5th grade, her mother Sarah Wildman is author of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.