When I was young, my mom worked at the K-mart salon, making a living giving perms to the elderly while they were shopping. I would go to work with her, watching her flawless beauty as she mingled with clients. She was elegant then, with long hair that reached the bottom of her shoulder blades in waves like the ocean cascading against the sand.
Her hair, dark and lovely, was unusually long. On warm days, she would pull it back in a loose braid at the nape of her olive colored neck, keeping her bangs feathered and full of Aqua Net, a style she couldn’t quite let go of. In the evenings, she would drag me, by the hand, over to the couch so I could brush her long locks as she watched television. I would fill it with colorful barrettes, pretending I was the stylist and she was my client. Of course I wanted to be just like her.
One summer day, her Irish temper ran to a boil and she impulsively chopped every bit of it off. We both stood in the kitchen, a mane at our feet, and cried, mourning the change.
Eventually, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, she left that job at K-mart and started styling hair in our kitchen. My mom would wash clients’ hair in the same porcelain sink that she cleaned our Tupperware, never once dropping the Virginia Slim hanging from her burgundy lips. Gold bracelets rattled as she scrubbed, then rinsed the suds with the faucet. I watched her long fingers, painted brightly, as she permed, trimmed and shaved, always in aww of her artistic flare.
After many more years, one more child, and a nursing degree, my mom eventually stopped doing hair. Though she loved hairdressing, she thought that nursing, and helping people, was her true calling. And it was. Her kind-hearted, selfless nature made her the perfect kind of nurse. Unfortunately, not long after she started nursing, she also found out she had cancer. By the time the doctor spotted it, in her routine colonoscopy, it had already metastasized, and overtaken her body, spreading from her colon to her liver and her lymph nodes. Though she was against it, she started aggressive chemotherapy to salvage what she could of her body. My mom was devastated because she could no longer practice nursing.
In the end, the chemotherapy only delayed the inevitable.
Four years later, on the day that she died, cancer and the poison of her drugs forced everything about her, including her hair, to change drastically. It was no longer thick and flowing, but instead brittle and matted to her ashen skin. Her eyes were closed tight, as she slept away the pain with a morphine drip. I used her brush to gently untangle her thinning brown tufts and move them away from her eyes, though I don’t know if she could feel my presence. I wanted so much to remember how it was to be on our couch as a child, filling her waves with colors of the rainbow, but the papery, unnatural feel of her hair was forbidding me. Still, I let my fingers linger there, wishing for a different outcome.
Despite my mom being gone more than four years, I think of her often. When I think of her, it’s sometimes as the hairdresser, or sometimes as the nurse, but always as the most beautiful woman; selfless, loving and easy to get along with.
And today, more than ever, I want to be just like her.