When my sister was in the first grade she was given a part in the school play as a ballerina though she’d never had a single dancing lesson. I don’t remember whether she danced, sang, or had lines to speak; I only remember how in awe I was of how beautiful she looked in that pink ruffled tutu and with her straw-like hair in curls. She was the prettiest girl in the school.
As teenagers we used to spend a lot of time swimming in a large canal (the farmers in the area boasted that it was large enough to turn a bus around in it). The canal ran through our farm and at a place where various head gates allowed water to run into smaller ditches and canals a large pool formed. That was where we and most of the local kids congregated to swim. My hair was long then and an elastic band kept it in a pony tail and out of my eyes while I swam. My sister’s hair wasn’t long enough for a pony tail and when it was wet it fell around her face in unflattering strings. A friend with a convertible often took us and a few friends to the drive-in movie after a long hot day of thinning beets that culminated in a plunge in the canal. Later when my sister would see her reflection in the mirror before we crawled into bed, the sight of her wind-dried hair filled her with despair.
She was the first to invest in a curling iron. I was sure the thing would burn her hair or leave it kinked and nasty looking. But after I saw the lovely curls she painstakingly created, I decided I needed a curling iron too. Though she’s younger than I am, she was far more adventurous than I was when it came to experimenting with make-up, perms and new hairstyles, or fashions. Her hair darkened to blonde before mine did and suddenly she had great hairstyles and I was left with plain and boring.
As a busy young mother and avid swimmer, my sister’s hairstyles tended in later years toward the practical with her blonde hair kept in short, boyish styles though she continued to seek professional cuts and styles.
One morning two weeks ago my sister announced that she’d just gotten the best haircut she’d ever had. That afternoon she got a telephone call that changed everything.
Today she is back to no hair. The heavy chemo treatment for her acute leukemia caused it to fall out in thick clumps and a nurse just finished shaving off what was left so that it won’t annoy her any longer.
Hair seems like a silly thing to think or write about when she is so terribly ill and there’s so much more than her hair at stake. Yet hair symbolizes in a way the relationship between us. We share so many memories that are unlike those shared with anyone else, we argued and competed yet knew no one else would ever stand up for us the way the other would, we admired and applauded each other’s achievements, we cried together over disappointments small and large, we grieved together over lost loved ones, and we knew each other’s secrets.
With my sister I learned to swim, to stand up for myself, to give-in gracefully, the thrill of a good book shared, to shop but always save enough for a hamburger and fries, the scariest experiences can be borne if they’re shared, kittens are for cuddling, New Year’s Eve babysitters should demand double pay, flowers make life beautiful, and friends are to be treasured. She taught me that a sister is a necessity and if the biological ones aren’t available, then make sisters out of friends and daughters.
It may seem odd, but when I look at her today, I don’t see blotched, red and swollen skin, a bald head, and a profusion of tubes. I see a little girl in a pink ballerina dress with a pile of golden curls atop her head, I see a giggling mermaid, I see a "jack-o-lantern" smile. I see my sister.