TEL AVIV —Three months after my friend Tamy’s husband died from melonoma at age 45, she donated her long hair so that a young cancer patient could wear it in a new wig. I decided to do the same.
The Zichron Menachem foundation, a cancer charity for children and their families, agreed to my unusual request to follow my donated locks to their eventual recipient.
The journey begins with Deborah Paryenty, a hairdresser and volunteer wigmaker for Zichron Menachem, who looks at my braid and begins searching in a box by her feet for others that might match. When they lay together on the table, she caresses them distractedly. Later, she will take them home, wash them carefully and put them in an oven, so the braids can dry slowly.
Our next meeting, a few weeks later, is at her workplace in Jerusalem. Anyone who has ever done delicate work with an industrial sewing machine would be amazed by what she can accomplish in three or four hours. She cuts black interfacing textile — very thin with the consistency of paper — into 1.5-centimeter-long stripes, folds them in half, inserts the strands of hair she has chosen and lays them gently under the sewing machine until it becomes a “tressing,” a kind of chain of real hair.
“Girls who have lost their hair always want the hair they had before,” she says, “so that people won’t notice that something has changed. That’s why I ask to see old photos of the girls.”
Amir Eliyahu, a well-known hairdresser in Tel Aviv, was the one who did the honors when it was time to get out the scissors. He braided my hair and began cutting it very slowly so the photographer could photograph it. When he finished the last cut, I heard clapping around me. This actually bothered me, and there is something very intimate and personal about this process.
From donor to patient
A few weeks ago Esty Schwartz, who is responsible for the foundation’s hair donation and wigs, called me and told me about a 14-year-old girl named Gal Yogev, whose hair was like mine before she lost it. In March 2013, Yogev was diagnosed with sarcoma and has been treated ever since.
In anticipation for our meeting at the hospital, I put on a robe, gloves and a mask and went into the isolation room. Gal was sitting on the bed looking quite pale and very embarrassed.
There is something not terribly inviting about a wig on a Styrofoam head that is wrapped with cellophane paper and a pink ribbon. Yes, it’s a gift with meaning, but it also underlines an absence. As I give her the wig, she very quietly says thank you and puts it on the other side of the bed.
And this is the moment when my narrative takes an unexpected turn. Because Gal doesn’t want a wig. She is comfortable with her baldness.
“If somebody stares, I stare back,” she says.
Her mother Jacky explains that her daughter feels “no need” to hide it. “At the beginning, she wore a bandana, but after a while she stopped. She likes it like that.”
Gal says she agreed to go through with the process because she wants people to donate their hair. “I wanted to raise awareness, because there are many girls whose baldness disturbs them very much.”
Jacky says that for her and her daughter the real difficulties don’t include Gal’s lack of hair. “The difficulties are the low blood counts, the sensitivity to heat, infections. These are things that are much more complicated to deal with than the treatment itself and the hair loss.”
When I ask Gal what she plans to do with the wig, she smiles and says, “I will keep it as a souvenir.”