This essay appeared in print in O Magazine in October 2020.
The essay is also available online, here: https://www.oprahmag.com/life/a33916517/how-to-deal-with-grief/
Eleanor had a black turban and gleaming smile that made her frail frame more grand. But she would have been difficult to overlook regardless: Jaundice gave her skin an otherworldly glow. Suffering from stage IV pancreatic cancer, Eleanor had less than a few months to live. She’d lost her hair after her first round of chemotherapy, and she required my services. “We need a white wig,” she said. “For my funeral.” Her granddaughter beside her only nodded, her eyes wet and wide.
I’ve been a traditional wigmaker for three years, fashioning pieces for women undergoing gender transition and experiencing myriad medical conditions. But I’d worn and altered wigs for more than a decade before that: I have androgenic alopecia that became noticeable in my early 20s, after a stressful year that started with leaving college and ended with caring for my best friend, who was suffering from a rare form of leukemia. So my clients and I have hair loss—that disorienting, alienating, confidence-destroying calamity—in common.
Eleanor had proudly lived her entire life where she was born and raised; she and her late husband had featured prominently in their hometown parade. She had also once taken pride in her hair, a full, three-inch permed halo that rarely budged but was soft to the touch. Pearly rinses ensured it shined in the right shade of frost. Eleanor had painstakingly preserved her beauty—and I would honor that.
Before coming to see me, she had tried ordering wigs online; each looked more like Halloween headgear than the last. But none of our studio’s manufactured options suited her. So with measurements and reference photos by my side, I spent a week with a wig block in my lap, pinning a wide strip of fine lace taut, stitching nearly invisible thread along the edges, knotting individual hairs. I knew how carefully Eleanor would inspect it.
When she returned a week later to try on the wig, I anxiously spun her chair, offering a handheld mirror. She poked a narrow finger along her forehead at the strands. “I have hair!” she said. “I can go out in public!”
Women whose bodies have been ravaged by disease can’t undo the damage. But they can apply a trusted lipstick, paint their nails, put on a dress that’s transformative, wear a wig: small acts that might make their physical self feel more like home for a while. An entire lifetime can’t fit into a casket, but the right color heels or a swooping curl just might ease the journey.