She lost it last summer after months of chemotherapy. And chemo, as all those who have experienced or witnessed it at close hand know, is a confounding business. On the one hand, it destroys cancer, in Ma R’s case breast cancer. This makes it an unreservedly good thing and if you have a cancer that is responsive to chemo, you feel lucky. On the other hand, it destroys everything else in its wake, from your immune system to your sense of humour. It’s a bit like using a wrecking ball to squish a spider. This makes it very bad indeed.
Anyway, before the treatment, for many decades, Ma R sported long black, and then grey hair that had been in a plait for so very long it no longer needed a hairband to secure it. It just plaited itself mysteriously, like a bewitched piece of Disney hair. Even on the rare occasions when it wasn’t plaited there was the ghost of a plait lurking in it. This plait was a solid and dependable thing, like gravity or the existence of horsemeat in our supermarkets.
But it turns out it wasn’t so invincible after all. By the end of last year, the plait was no more. Now Ma R’s head has gone from a sweetly naked pate to a fuzzy grey cap of baby hair. It was very tactile and Ma R didn’t seem to mind us all rubbing it and going ‘ahhhhhhh’. Her breast cancer surgeon called it “very Judi Dench”, which delighted Ma R and made her eyes twinkle most Denchly.
And now? It’s changed once more. It’s grown a couple of inches and Ma R has been brushing it back in a surprise homage to David Bowie in Labyrinth. It is sticking up more punkly than Denchly. And it’s nice and springy. I bet walking on it would feel like scrunching over heather in late summer.
She seems brighter too and is going out for walks, reading a book for book club, and doing some very peculiar exercises with a wooden cane. I watch her as she lies on her bed, swaddled in a towel, raising the cane above her head and bringing it crashing down with chutzpah. “You look like you’re preparing for an audition for Cabaret,” I note. She giggles most Denchly.
The treatment isn’t over yet though. Every three weeks she goes to the hospital for a ‘blast’ of Herceptin. This is a designer breast cancer drug, described to me by one woman who has had it as “liquid gold”. I don’t think receiving it is as much fun though. But it does allow Ma R to read lots of old magazines in the waiting area. And Ma R loves nothing more than old magazines – they are to be cherished, stacked and held on to for no apparent reason. Forever.
Today she has one for me. “It’s a special issue of a dogs magazine devoted to Staffies,” she says excitedly. Then she lowers her voice conspiratorially. “We went back to the hospital the next day and brought it home for you.”
I pretend to be unimpressed by this mini heist, not wanting to encourage criminal activity in my mother. But she will take it back once I’m done with it. In the meantime we coo over pictures of Staffies, united in our love of my dog, Daphne. I promise to bring her next time I visit. When presumably Ma R’s hair will have changed all over again.