Anna Donald: Funerals and hairstyles

Anna Donald Oh dear. I’ve just been to another funeral. The third one this year. Death swirls its big mysterious cloaks around us (what colour? black? rainbow? purple?), sweeping change to all of our lives. At this rate I’m going to outlive everyone. This time it’s the mother of an old boyfriend who was extremely generous to me in my idle youth. She was raised on the wrong side of the tracks in Sydney in the 1940s. She persistently and admirably seized every educational chance to become an inspired teacher – in the roughest and poshest places – and then a lawyer, her big dream. She lovingly saw me, like her, as ‘potential’ to be pushed the extra mile.

It worked. Her and her family’s enthusiastic support (as well as that of my own family) was instrumental in my applying for, and winning a Rhodes Scholarship, despite my desultory sports record and the fact that in 1989 in Australia the Rhodes was still considered a ‘bloke’s scholarship.’ I played the piano, not Aussie Rules or ‘thugby.’   

Pat died of cancer, but only after nine great years of life lived to the full. I’ll be delighted with those innings. But that doesn’t make the parting any easier.

Death death death. Yet, for myself, despite all this, I don’t feel it close to hand. The lack-of-hair situation means I can’t forget I’ve got cancer, but I don’t particularly want to forget. I don’t mind having cancer, I just don’t want to die for a long time.

The hair situation. What an almost-comic palaver that’s turning out to be. First I lost my hair, as people do, in the early rounds of chemotherapy, in 2003. I wore headscarves, but didn’t bother much with wigs, as I wanted my own hair back, not somebody else’s.

And sure enough, it came back, more or less intact as the doctors promised, when the chemo stopped six months later.

Then, in 2007, I lost it again. Again everyone promised it would come back. It didn’t. Or at least, the thick red stuff didn’t. What emerged was a kind of blonde fluff, like baby hair, only thinner and less cute.

Then I had head radiation, which more or less blasted all of it onto the bathroom floor in little blonde tufts.  And I was very bald for a while. I assumed that was that. But now, I’ve got weird patches of hair in different places emerging, including a vivid red patch in the shape of an inverted heart (?!) on the back of my head.

The best solution, of course, is to shave the lot and have a clean head. But I’m curious to see what emerges. Every morning I peer in the mirror at the tiny hairs: so far, red, white, brown and a kind of charcoal.

My mother hates this approach and wants me to shave to make it all neat and tidy and not to look like a mangy dog. But I can always plonk my wig/beanie/headscarf to cover up if I have to look respectable. So I’m holding out for a bit longer, just to see what happens.
One annoying thing about major hair loss is losing your eyebrows, because they frame your face. You don’t notice this until you don’t have them, when your eyes and nose merge with your forehead, which looks very strange.

I still have eyebrows, but they’re white-blonde so you can barely see them. I am becoming increasingly grateful to good make-up, which can do wondrous things to a blotchy, puffy, hairless chemo-affected face. Like create eyebrows.

So far, my eyelashes have hung on for dear life, which is good, because mascara does a lot to distract you from the eyebrow situation.

The other (VERY) annoying thing is that I haven’t lost hair everywhere. Without going into unseemly details, let’s say I’m divided in two. Above midriff, no hair. Below, business as usual. Which means I still shave my legs and mess the bath up and have to clean it. I can’t believe it. What’s so bloody marvellous about my leg hairs that they can survive the barrage without blinking an eyelid? The mysteries of cancer are endless.

There are, however, good things about being bald. When it’s hot, you can ‘take off your hair’ in a way that hairy people can’t. You don’t get hairs in the soup or any other part of your, or other people’s food.

As a woman at least, you save a small fortune on haircuts, treatments and ‘products’ (though good wigs aren’t cheap). You can shock small children and shut annoying people up by casually removing your hat and wig. A leering man on a station platform certainly looked startled when I took off my hair.

Children, of course, don’t mind; they’re just curious.  I often hear the words “Why hasn’t that lady got any hair?” drift behind me after I’ve passed children with their parents. I often wonder what kind of explanation the parents give: “there are people who take drugs for a disease called cancer…” etc.

Or maybe they just think I’m a punk. In nice shoes with an upside-down heart on the back of her head.

The other good thing is that I can now join Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their brilliant 1960-something, Beyond the Fringe Archbishop-of-Canterbury skit, in saying “My brother Esau is an hairy man but I am a smooth man.” OK, so I’m a woman, my brother is called Tom, and my legs aren’t completely smooth without a Gillette. But hey. I’m a lot smoother than I was and almost certainly smoother than Esau.

I think perhaps I’d better stop right there before I reveal the true depths of my ‘daftness’ as my husband, a Northerner, calls it. Have a lovely week.

  • Dr.Viveck Atheya

    Lovely mail,

    Viveck Atheya

  • Tom

    Condolences to Pat’s family.
    Hope the packing is going well.

  • justin

    Nice line of observation, and puts any worries about grey hairs into perspective.

    All the best


  • Sarah Godwin

    Dear dear Anna

    I have only just discovered your blog, thanks to Catherine in Winchester. Of all the blogs in all the blogosphere, this one shoots off and lights up like a flare, blotting all the others to dimness. My job requires me to read some dismal blogs, and yours just makes everything click about the POINT of them. It’s just so wonderful to hear from you, directly, in your own words, not someone else’s second or third hand account, of how you actually ARE – living, thinking, arguing, loving, all of that stuff. I feel so lucky to have found it and send love, calm positive thoughts and best wishes across the ether to you and Michael. I feel ridiculously proud of both of you. He never did get the importance of shoes though did he?
    Sarah Godwin x x

  • Archana

    Amazing spirit, very interesting writing. Looking forward to more!

  • Lelia

    Dear Anna

    For the first time I find myself a regular blog reader! You have made me laugh, and given much food for thought.

    With thanks and best wishes


  • Trudy

    Dearest Anna

    I met you in Boston in 1995 and, after conducting more than 10,000 interviews and career counselling sessions worldwide over 20 years, I have never forgotten your extreme giftedness, intelligence, authenticity and sensitivity. You are a rare individual on this planet!

    I woke this morning with you in my mind and set about searching Google to find you and I did – though I had no idea you have cancer. My thoughts and love to you.

    Your courage in expressing your personal day-to-day challenge is such an inspiration and lesson in authenticity. Now millions can see what I saw in our meeting.

    Thank you. With best wishes,


  • justin

    Battle of the Justins

    Sorry to get beaten to the response by my doppelganger.As a redhead its good to know there is life after Chemo for our unique colour (its almost worth my childhood memories of “carrot top” etc).
    Stay great.

    Justin J

  • Anna Donald

    No doubt about it, you have another career ahead,
    doing ‘stand up’ somewhere or other.
    What a woman!