When I was in my early 20s, I decided that my natural hair colour needed to be augmented. I was really a redhead in spirit and only needed to help nature a slight bit to make my exterior look conform to my interior spirit.
I started with henna when I was about 22. It was not a pleasant process, involving a thick reddish mush that smelled like a septic tank. But the result was quite pleasing and it washed out of existence, giving me ample time to reflect on whether red was truly the new blonde or what.
Henna slowly faded from popularity and other concoctions stepped up to the follicle. While there was still no grey in sight I could use a natural product that would also fade quietly out of the picture. I continued to be one with my inner redhead and insisted that photos of me as a child had perhaps shifted in colour tone. I was sure I was red even as a five-year-old.
At the first inkling that the underlying colour might betray my inner Maggie Muggins, I switched to something more permanent. A red that could compete with the scarlet letter and not bat an eye when asked if it was natural. I embraced my redness and dressed accordingly. I was known as a redhead and the colour was part of the person I recognized as me.
Six months after my 54th birthday, I was advised that a six-month course of chemotherapy was in order to treat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I didn't really have a problem with that. I was also advised that I would lose my hair. Now, other than the colour, which nature had not endowed me with, I was not particularly fond of my hair. It was straight, it was thin and it had never complied with any instructions I had given it. Losing it wasn't going to be too devastating. What I hadn't counted on was losing the colour.
I had it cut shorter, then shorter again, but was still red to the end. My hairdresser finally shaved the last of my red persona off at the end of July, 2009, and I was confronted, for the first time in my life, with just me. All face, no hair.
It is a humbling experience to have your crowning glory disappear and your bald pate take its place. Stare, study and ponder as I might, I no longer recognized the face in the mirror. It bore no resemblance to the me I had thought I was. My friends were phenomenal. They all told me I had a perfectly shaped head. That I should remain bald for the rest of my days, because no one had a head better suited than mine for Buddhism.
I had two wigs in my possession lent to me by a dear friend who had been through the defoliation process. They weren't red. I put them on and felt like an imposter. I looked in the mirror and didn't recognize myself. Finally, four months into the process, I broke down and bought a red wig. I suddenly felt livelier when I wore it, and although the cut was a bit poofier (all right, a lot poofier) than mine, it was red! It was so red that it would make me forget I was supposed to be ill.
The chemo stopped at the end of the year and I had promised myself that I would travel south and sit on a beach to contemplate infinity while staring at the ocean. The first thing I did when I got off the plane and into a rental car was rip the wig off my head. It was a new country and a new me.
I sat on the beach for two weeks getting brown and healthy with another dear friend. Suddenly, when it was time to go home, a shadow appeared on my scalp. Finally, for the first time in more than six months, there was an ever-so-slight demarcation between my forehead and my head. My hair was starting to grow.
I watched with fascination. I did not know the colour of my hair. I hadn't seen it since the seventies, and who really remembers the seventies? It slowly came back but this time in tight curls that were silver and grey and totally unrecognizable to the Maggie Muggins that was me.
My family said they loved my short hair and my friends said the length and colour were great. I stared in the mirror willing the red back but curious to know who the woman with the curly silver hair was.
I went back to full-time work, to the store I owned and the business I loved. Some customers gave huge hugs and accolades for my new look. Others who might not have seen me for a while were more tentative. "Is the store under new ownership?" one asked. "No," I replied, "just under new hair."
While standing beside my older sister in an elevator, a fellow passenger struck up a conversation. Near the end of the ride, she said, "And you must be the eldest." To which I replied, "No, just the one who doesn't dye her hair any more."
The most recent volley across the bow struck deeper than any of the others. "Are you the mother?" a woman asked. "You mean the store owner," I replied. "No, there were two women working, an older one and a younger one. Which one are you?"
The shorter silver look was bringing me closer to the grave than the chemo had. I may soon book an appointment to regain my red-haired self. Although I am no longer the woman I used to be, I'm not quite ready to become the older woman people seem to see when they look at the colour of my hair.
Victoria Dinnick lives in Toronto.