“There is such tenderness in braiding the hair of someone you love. Kindness and something more flow between the braider and the braided, the two connected by the cords of the plait.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
“May I braid your hair?”
There were several nurses around me making final preparations, checking my IV line and securing my plastic bag full of Personal Items under the gurney. I was moments away from being wheeled into the OR. Moments away from receiving general anesthesia and – with any luck at all – a fully mobile shoulder joint. The woman at my side asked me if she could braid my hair.
I struggled to read her face without my glasses. “Of course,” I mumbled. “Thank you.”
Surgery is a fascinating adventure for the layperson to contemplate. I believe there is a certain courage in the surgeon to go against a deep and primal taboo – the sanctity of the envelope of the human body. To cut into it, to open it up, or as in The Knight’s Tale “to make your entrails your extrails” is ballsy as fuck.
In those last moments right before the nurse anesthetist puts your lights out, there you are, naked, and utterly vulnerable. And backing up from that only two minutes or so, a woman I’d never met asked me if she could braid my hair.
My hair is long, gray, and unruly. I think I had attempted a ponytail in my vain effort to control and render tidy the mop I proudly describe as looking rather like a Scottish Deerhound. The nurse explained “I think it might be in the way as the surgeon works on your shoulder.” Makes sense. My hair is often in the way.
My hair has a backstory. I was born with normal baby hair – black and wavy. It all fell out and I was bald for quite a while. When my hair finally grew in, it was strawberry blond, and hung in ringlets. As I got older, my hair got darker, straighter, and thicker. At age 10, I had flower child, waist-length, plain Jane brown hair.
Super thick and dead straight, I was the queen of poodle perms for most of my teen years. Then I shaved my head because Art College. It grew back and I got busy with life and left my hair alone for a few decades. Then I started going gray.
It was at a friend’s wedding that her mother leaned over to me and stage whispered “you’d look ten years younger if you dyed your hair.” I was about 35. Welcome to a decade of stained towels and bad “wash in wash out” shades of cinnamon and cloves. In my forties I waved the white flag. No more dye, no more haircuts, no more perms, no more battling to make my hair conform to some societal notion of what a professional woman and mother should look like. I might add that it was in this era that my mom remarked “you look like a haystack with a nose poking out of it.”
At 55, I have salt and pepper locks that tumble down my back and breast in a most untidy manner. 99% of the time I just could not muster up even a microgram of caring. Whenever Tom wants to get an easy laugh, he insults my hair. It’s become our darling whipping boy. Even my daughters, step and bio, have gotten in on the teasing and hair jokes. It’s an easy target, low hanging fruit.
Fast forward to 2020. While I evaded Covid, the pandemic held special charms for me. I had a frozen shoulder that stubbornly refused to thaw. And my ability to swallow shit the bed.
Achalasia. How rare is achalasia? Well, let’s put it this way: you’re 10,000 times more likely to die in an auto accident than be diagnosed with achalasia. But sure enough, I’m the one. Reaching a diagnosis took a number of steps, and most of those involved sticking a probe or camera or sensor into my esophagus.
I started showing up with purple hair to have these test done. I’m not sure why. The first time was unintentional, but the doctor complimented me. Baaahahahaha. That was all the encouragement I needed. Purple. Teal. Green. Silver mixed with purple, aiming for pewter. Every procedure earned a new shade. I felt like the staff at all these hospitals and treatment facilities deserved a chuckle. Covid was sucking all the joy out of health care the way terrorism had sucked all the joy out of travel. The weird old lady with the incredibly rare disease also dyes her hair purple… let’s face it, even if they don’t laugh, it’s memorable. It’s stands out and that helps make the work day go by. Pandemic times, and I’ve become a frequent flyer at the local hospital. Feels like the least I can do is be entertaining.
So after failing physical therapy, and a failed cortisone injection, I dragged my frozen shoulder and my paralyzed esophagus off to the hospital one more time, to have that shoulder freed up surgically. If I can’t swallow, I reasoned, I want to be able to use both arms. It made sense in my head.
No one has braided my hair for me since high school. Jen and I used to practice French braids in art class… until we had a falling out. I don’t know exactly what happened, but one day Jen hated me. And then if she did a poor job braining some other girl’s hair, she would tie off the end with a hair tie and the quip “if anyone says anything, just tell them Heather Rolland did your braid.”
A stranger’s hands in my hair… a stranger’s hands inside my body. Surgery is profoundly intimate. So is hair braiding, albeit in a different way. The nurse stranger was older than me, her hands gentle and her movements deft. She didn’t pull or pinch. The anesthesiologist had come in to speak with me moments prior, and his first words were “I read your chart and I’m sorry you’re going through this.” I teared up at the candid acknowledgement. “I’ll take care of you,” he said. I was still reeling from this human moment, tucked into the bee hive busy-ness of surgical prep, when the stranger braided my hair.
I don’t remember her name although she did tell me. I don’t remember her face, because she was capped, gowned, and masked. But I remember her hands clearly, long-fingered and wrinkled, like my mom’s hands.
I placed myself in her hands and chose to trust.
That was in September, 2021. It’s January 2022, and I’ve been back to the hospital a few more times. I’ve had more tests and another surgery. And I’m on the mend. It’s been a very long 22 months, but here I am, the proud owner of a gravitational swallow. I braid my own hair, now that I have two shoulders that move freely. And I’m grateful beyond measure to all the people who have been a part of this journey. There are many problems facing the American health care system today, but the kindness and compassion of the people with whom I’ve crossed paths is undisputable.