34: Lessons from losing my hair

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I once was a girl, small and fragile. On the days we went to town, my mom would hold my hand so tightly, pulling me close, protecting me. I would sit on the bus with my curious big, brown eyes taking in everything. I would watch big people and dream about how and when I was going to be like them- a self written in the stars, bulletproof and perfect.

I watched as the adult people clasped door handles and straddled bus seats. 4 people  squeezing into a 3 person seat. Their mouths complained yet they still squeezed. They knew the bus conductor was king of his castle. He made the rules. And they had no choice but to yield even when their mouths moved in protest.

I would watch as they pulled money out of their purses and pockets to pay for the fare. And I would dream of being a grown up with a purse of my own; with money in that purse to pay bus fares and make things happen.

I would watch the outside world through the window drinking in the expansive Zambian sky, a canopy over strangers going about their lives, so beautiful and elegant in their bodies, in their being themselves.

But now I am a woman, all grown, hair, flesh, skin and bone. I have purses. Brown ones, yellow ones and black ones. Sometimes they are empty and sometimes they are full. Watching people pull money out of their purses is not the same as pulling money out of your own. I know that now.

I wake up on somedays with heaviness sitting on my chest. Pressing and pressing until I’m choking on my own loneliness. The human connections that seemed hot and burning yesterday lie cold on the floor. Illusions of a grown woman.  I lift myself out of bed and heaviness comes with me reminding me of the aches and pains I have endured in this life, on this journey. He won’t let me forget. He sits deeper into me and I stumble. I ask for mercy even as I hold myself in my arms on the dirty floor whispering positive mantras to myself. My tears fall like rain, unrelenting and abandoned.

Heaviness sits across from me, a forlorn look on his face chewing on a matchstick. I watch him through my wet lashes willing him to leave me alone. None of us say a word to each other but we both know the truth:

People are beautiful. And people are disappointing. I am beautiful. And I am disappointing.

“I love people,” I say to no one in particular, “but people…people break my heart.”

Heaviness shifts but doesn’t look at me. Even from where he sits across from me, he is pressing stronger into my chest. I close my eyes and think back to last October.

So last October, my hair started falling out. I woke up a few days after my graduation, one of the best days of my life, with an itchy head. I stood in front of the mirror determined to give my scalp relief. I ran my hand through my hair and the horror settled into me like a betrayal. Chunks of hair effortlessly intertwined with my fingers. My hair, my beautiful, thick, black hair had lost its will to live. Just 3 weeks after we had made the pact – that I would finally learn to take care of it, that I would finally learn to trust it, that I would finally learn to love it.

See, all my life I was taught to be ashamed of my hair; to hide it in braids and cornrows because it was believed to be unruly and unkempt in its unprocessed state. It was not straight, long or blond. It was coily and thick, hair designed to grow out of my head upwards. I had no say in this, try as I may to manipulate it into painful submission to fit into societal  beauty norms. Last October I had reached my limit. There was no more submission left in me. I was going to rebel. And I was excited. Only…only I was a few weeks late.

“You know,” I said, bringing myself back to the present and looking straight at Heaviness snuggly set against the wall.

“I should have done it earlier. I wanted to but I kept putting it off.”

Heaviness looked up at me for the first time and his lips twitched uneasily. From where I lay on the floor it looked like a smile. So I smiled back and as I did I tasted the dry salt the tears stained on my lips. I looked down at my knees that were cuddling my chest.

“I feel defeated by life,” I said speaking to no one again.

“But I understand now that there are no guarantees in life. And I must not put things off when I know I need to do them.”

I felt Heaviness move closer, his intimate presence invading every empty molecule of space around me.

“Happy 34th birthday, Sunny,” he said, his voice so close it caressed my ear.

I shivered at his touch and surrendered into my defeat.

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