Saying Goodbye To My Wife’s Curls

A love letter to the hair that chemo is taking from us

Cancer Husband
Human Parts
5 min readDec 14, 2023

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Adapted from image by Alexander Gray, AKA Sharon McCutcheon, on Unsplash.

Her hair is everywhere. Dried and stuck to the shower door, wrapped around my toothbrush, and last night it was in my dinner. We were eating pre-packed boeuf bourguignon, slopped from a plastic tray into four bowls, and eaten on its own because neither of us thought to cook vegetables. A single curled hair lay there, in my bowl. I fished out a bay leaf and the hair in one discrete movement. She need never know.

Her hair is everywhere today, but soon it will be gone from our lives completely. What on earth did I expect? Losing her hair was always priced in, as everyone’s first mental image when the doctor says “We recommend chemotherapy.” But the image brought to mind is always of a brave woman, shaving her head to ‘take back control’, with tasteful headscarves and sympathetic smiles from the strangers in the street. I didn’t think of the reality: which is that her hair will fall out slowly, then more quickly, and will deposit itself in every room of the house. Of course it would.

We’ve seen these hairs around the house for at least a month now. A week or two ago I hugged her in the kitchen and placed my hand on the back of her head. It felt…thin. Flat. It still looked the same, I thought. Or was I fooling myself? But today it’s unmistakable. It’s half gone, and bald patches are appearing. My guess is we’ll shave it this coming weekend, just in time for Christmas and all the family get-togethers.

She had a glorious, big, curly head of hair. If a child was to draw her – and ours often did – they’d always start with her hair, swirling and spinning the pen. Her curls defined her silhouette and were the most memorable feature of what she presented to the world. Her hair turned heads, not least my own.

I wish I could post a picture of my wife, in all her beauty and curls. My phone is full of such photos. Even now, after 16 years together, I’m proud to share pictures of her. I want to share my good fortune: “Look! Look at this gorgeous woman that agreed to marry me!” But I’m writing here under a nom de plume, not revealing our faces to the world. There’ll be no photos.

We got together when I was 30 years old and she was only 23. I was doing contract work for a think-tank, where she worked in the events team. Relationships within the team were mildly frowned upon, and we weren’t sure we wanted our colleagues to know, just in case this was a fleeting thing, so we kept it secret. She’d stay over at my place and do her hair in the morning, using straighteners she pulled from an overnight bag. I was a professional man living alone in a minimal, modern apartment. I had a huge TV and all the tech from the noughties, but my bedroom lacked a chair and dressing table. She did her hair on her knees, on the floor, in front of a mirrored wardrobe. Back then she was rocking an unusual style: she’d straighten just her fringe, and draw it diagonally across her forehead, leaving an explosion of curls behind. With her hair carefully and sexily arranged we’d drive in to work together. I’d drop her off just round the corner, then follow her in a few minutes later. In this small office, where nobody knew we’d shared a bed that morning, I’d enjoy catching her attention. She’d look up at me from her desk, holding eye contact for a beat too long, with huge brown eyes beneath that straightened fringe. I loved these stolen moments, and Lord was she beautiful.

In the early months of our relationship, when we were intimate as often as we ate, it took me time to adapt to her hair. There was lots of it. I have a memory of her lying on top of me, noses touching, kissing, with her curls draped around my face, like a curtain closing us in. Did this happen once, or a hundred times? Can we do it again? I’d love that.

My first attraction to her was physical and geographic. She had a beautiful face, a sexy body and she was French. French! This was the potent formula that powered our early dates. I spoke a little French, and loved showing off. She indulged me, kindly letting this messy school-boy phrasing go without correcting every sentence. She was inexperienced, with only some short relationships in her past, while I was towing enough baggage for both of us. I’d been married at 25, divorced at 27, and was just out of a two-year relationship with a Very Difficult Woman. I remember thinking this difference in life experiences would ultimately end the relationship, but I was falling for her more heavily by the day. The powerful physical attraction I felt was gradually overtaken by my knowledge and love for who she was. She could be mysterious, but I loved the quest: trying to understand enough of who and how she is, such that we could create a happy life together.

A decade into our relationship, when we’d conjured two children and life could be exhausting, I realized her hair was a window into her well-being. If her hair hung limp, close to her head, all was not well. Perhaps she just hadn’t washed it for a day or two, or hadn’t had time to style it, but I saw a more subtle sign: It meant she was struggling, in mind or body. This also worked in reverse: exuberant, bouncing curls would meet her smiling face and I’d know all was well.

She’s changed her hair over the years, with blonde highlights, a full bleach, and an unusual ‘short at the back, tumbling curls at the front’ experiment that I liked and she didn’t. She once straightened all of her hair just to prove to me that it looked weird. She’d known this from the age of 15, but I suppose I needed proof. No, my wife has curly hair – this is how things must be.

That is, until her cancer. Now baldness is nearly upon her, and it makes me so sad.

They say it grows back, most of the time, once the bags of chemo poison have passed through her body. We’re banking on that. Several friends have enjoyed telling us of the women they’ve known whose hair returned in some new way: curls have straightened, thin hair has thickened, and so on. This is said to add warmth to an anecdote that would otherwise be cold and stark: “My friend had chemo. She lost her hair. She didn’t die.”

But I don’t want her hair to come back and be different. I want the hair she had when I fell in love with her, back in 2007. I want the hair she had when she gave birth to our two babies. I want my wife exactly as she was, beautiful and with those spectacular curls, before this bastard illness came into our home. We’re holding on, holding each other, until that happy day arrives.

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