My daughter, Audrey, celebrated her fifth birthday with less hair on her head than she had the day she was born. Eight and a half months of chemotherapy plus eight cranial radiation treatments had effectively knocked out all but a few long, blonde hairs. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were gone by that time, too. But so was her leukemia. “Hair grows back,” everyone assured us in the beginning, when her hair started falling out. “It might look different-curlier, a different color or texture, perhaps-but it’ll come back.”
Audrey’s hair started growing back in May, six months ago, after she’d finished the most intense part of chemotherapy. One minute her scalp was bald, dry and itchy, and the next thing we knew, she had shoots of new hair sprouting all over her head. (I already wrote a poem about it–“Fuzzy”–and posted a slideshow that illustrates her hair loss, hair regrowth and incredible spirit over the last year.) After witnessing Audrey’s gradual hair loss and, now, the exciting regrowth of her hair-a physical sign of health and normalcy returning-I’ll probably never take her hair for granted again.
But I don’t expect complete strangers to be amazed by my thick-haired daughter. Why should they be? She looks normal to them. A perfectly normal, healthy little boy. A boy who likes to wear shiny rainbow tennis shoes with pink and purple shoelaces. A boy who dresses in pink pants, flower and fairy-decorated T-shirts, and hot-pink ankle socks. A boy who sometimes covers his three inches of dark blonde, wavy hair with a pink ball cap that says “Princess” in pretty cursive letters.
Confused? Yeah, so is everyone else! I never knew it before, but apparently hair length is the number-one way to differentiate little boys from little girls. If you’re a 5-year-old girl with short hair, most people will assume you’re a boy.
I’m pretty open-minded; I let my kids wear whatever they want, within reason. But lately I’ve been steering Audrey away from the gender-neutral or “boy” items in her wardrobe-white T-shirts and plain blue jeans, gray sweatshirts, her older brother’s hand-me-down dinosaur, lizard, and SpongeBob T-shirts-especially if I know she’s going to be around a lot of kids who’ve never met her. It shouldn’t matter whether she’s a boy or girl, but it does matter. Of course it matters. Kids at the park want to know who they’re playing with! Boys don’t necessarily want to play with girls, and girls don’t necessarily want to play with a short-haired girl who might actually be a boy dressed in pink.
Audrey’s short hair is actually quite fashionable right now. But little kids don’t know what a pixie haircut is. They know that “boy hair” is short and “girl hair” is long. Period. When I take Audrey out, we get some interesting reactions from other people. Here are a few “hair-raising” true stories I’d like to share:
After being cooped up at home (or the hospital) for nine months, we were thrilled-thrilled-to be able to take Audrey out to eat last May. With just a fine layer of fuzz on her head, it was still fairly apparent that she was a cancer patient. We all went to a restaurant where electric trains deliver your food. Audrey wore a paper train engineer’s hat on her fuzzy head and enjoyed her strawberry shake and fries. When we went up to the counter to pay, we were told that another customer who wished to remain anonymous had already paid our tab. Thank you, kind stranger!
Last summer I took my kids to the park they call “pirate ship park,” where two little girls were already playing. The girls started playing with my son right away-they were all around the same age-and kept a curious eye on Audrey. I heard the girls whispering, “Is that a boy or girl?” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that. I smiled and told them, “She’s a girl. Her name’s Audrey.” I thought the head-to-toe pink outfit might clue them in, but, silly me, boys can wear pink, too; there’s nothing wrong with that. The blonde girl-the nasty girl, as I remember her-then informed my son, loudly, “Your sister looks like a boy!”
He ignored her the first time she said it, and they kept climbing all over the “pirate ship.” I wanted to say something, but, even more, I wanted to see how my son would handle things himself. Audrey wasn’t paying attention to the others; she was going up and down the slide over and over again. The other girl-the sweet girl, obviously a peacemaker by nature-told me that Audrey was very cute.
The “observant” blonde girl again told my son, “Your sister looks like a boy!”
“Well, she had leukemia,” my son said, matter-of-factly.
Blondie didn’t know what to say. The other girl filled the awkward silence with, “Oh, I had that!” as if leukemia were a sprained ankle or upset stomach.
At our local Light the Night Walk, an awesome fundraising event for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Audrey got to wear a white unisex “SURVIVOR” T-shirt. I did what I could to make her look “girly,” giving her pink pants to wear and her favorite rainbow shoes. I should have put a pink bow in her hair, but Audrey’s not big on hair accessories. She was called “sir” several times.
A woman noticed Audrey’s T-shirt and approached us to ask what my son had survived. I told her that Audrey was my daughter, actually, and that she was still in treatment for T-cell ALL and had been in remission for a year. Then this woman told me that her granddaughter had had AML when she was 8 months old, and a bone marrow transplant from the girl’s sister had saved her life, and look at her now, nine years later, bouncing in the Moonwalk. That girl had lovely long dark hair.
At our hematology/oncology clinic a few months ago, short-haired Audrey started playing with a little boy who had about an eighth-inch of light blonde hair. He looked like a normal, healthy boy. But considering where we were, I guessed that he was in cancer treatment. The boy’s great-grandmother was with him, and she asked about my “son.” I corrected her and she apologized profusely.
“I should have recognized that she was a girl,” the woman said. Then she went on to tell me that her 3-year-old great-grandson, the boy playing with Audrey, had been diagnosed with ALL at the exact same age his aunt (her granddaughter) was diagnosed with ALL, 28 years ago. And her granddaughter, the one who’s been a childhood leukemia survivor for 28 years (and who never lost all her hair during chemotherapy, as a matter of fact), just had her first baby. Remarkable.
Last week we took the kids “trunk-or-treating” at my son’s school. Audrey dressed up in her Tinker Bell costume and loved collecting candy with her Stormtrooper brother. (What a change from last year, when she and I were both recovering from the flu on Halloween and didn’t get to trick-or-treat at all.) I noticed that a lot of kids were gawking at Audrey, some doing double-takes when they spotted her. I couldn’t figure it out at first, but then I “heard” what the confused kids were thinking: Oh my gosh, why is that little boy dressed like Tinker Bell?!
I suspect that by next Halloween, no one will wonder if Audrey’s a boy. Her short hair is awfully cute, though. Audrey’s feeling good, looking great, and playing with other kids again (and most kids are nice to her, even if they can’t tell she’s not a boy). Those of us who know how far she’s come can’t stop rubbing her hair. It’s impossibly soft and darker than before. In certain lights her new hair looks silver and my son calls her “Old Lady.”
With or without hair, she’s one brave, strong, beautiful, young “old lady.” She’ll sprinkle you with pixie dust if you ask nicely.
Fuzzy (a poem about hair loss from cancer treatment–and hope)
Happy Remission Day, Audrey Mae
First Year of Leukemia Treatment: Audrey’s Journey (in Pictures)
How Asthma-like Symptoms Led to My Child’s Cancer Diagnosis
Audrey’s CarePages blog