In those early days she endures a multitude of tests and medications, often intrusive and at times painful. She has lumbar punctures – under anaesthetic, modern medicine would not be so cruel as to subject children to that horror whilst awake – intrathecal chemotherapy (drugs into her spine), IV chemotherapy, anti-sickness tablets, steroids, blood transfusions, platelet transfusions, hydration, blood test after blood test, cannulas in her arms for the drips.
And yet, her main concern is hair. It is the symbol of childhood cancer. Skinny, pale-faced little girls with head scarves and big black circles under their eyes. They are bald under there; hair gone with the chemotherapy. It is the first thing you think of when they say cancer. It is a collocation. Think cancer, think bald. She loves her long hair. And now we know she will lose it. Almost Samson-like. The hair will go and with it her strength, her appetite, her energy for life. I organise for a lady to come and cut it short, to try and soften the blow. This becomes an appointment I live to fear. It is irrational. I have seen her go through so much worse in these first few days, but the thought of her hair being cut makes me feel sick. Not because of beauty or acceptability, but because it symbolises what is soon to pass, what will happen to her. Is she strong enough? Am I strong enough?
We spread a bed sheet out on the floor of the bay and put a blue, plastic chair in the centre of it. We drape a second sheet over her shoulders. She looks tiny, swaddled in fabric, far more fragile now than as the robust, ten pound newborn she once was. Who knew? Scissors snip through the unkempt tangles: mousy brown, adored hair drops onto the sheet, like blood, or tears, spreading in a pool at her feet. She doesn't say anything. Shorter and shorter her hair is cropped. Again, I find myself holding my breath and waiting. Each cut of the scissors reminding me that life has changed. My daughter will be unrecognisable, just as life is now unrecognisable.
When the hairdresser finishes, we show my daughter her hair in a little mirror, held steady in hands that long to tremble. It is a pixie crop, and she does look elfin. It is beautiful. But it is temporary. The lady can already feel the follicles of her hair loosening. It won't be long before it falls out completely.