I never admired how you grew into thick, resilient strands black as India ink: I used to bleach you so frail or shave you clean under the harsh summer sun. Once in high school I didn’t wash you for ten straight weeks because I thought it would’ve been so cool to be the only Chinese kid in Chicago with dreadlocks. When you started to recede, my worries flew up the Lau family history of hair, recalling grandpa’s pattern baldness, how mom’s whole head turned white like a curtain of ivory needles before she was twenty, and how Uncle Etienne nicknamed Dad Silvermane for the bolt of white streaking across the back of his head, which he always boasted was a sign of his brilliance.
Though I knew one day I’d have to say goodbye to you, I pictured you slowly retreating over decades like a wounded beach, never thought I’d see you vanish completely in the flashfires of chemotherapy. After the first week, I stood in the bathtub pulling out tiny clumps of you like unraveling the string my head was stitched from. Wiping off half an eyebrow was like holding a handful of bloody teeth, wiping off the other half like looking back at the car crash wondering if I really survived it. It never was the foreshadowing x-rays, or negative blood tests, or sinister words likemalignant that broke me. It was when I saw you blanketing my bathroom floor like bodies strewn across a battlefield that I thought If I am to be devoured, then please, God, Night, Mouth in the Darkness, swallow me faster than one hair at a time.
I would like you to know that every day, I would still shampoo my naked scalp out of habit in memorial for your shortened life; my fingers would pay respects to a thousand of your gravestones every morning. Maybe this was my ritual to call you back: on my knees, white as the sheet I feared they’d lay over me, an atheist praying for regeneration in cupfuls of hair. How many nights did I run my finger along the rim of my head searching for your return? How many deserts did I cross in my mind?
Years after, I still catch myself carelessly running my fingers through your nest to see if you’ve held against the wind, promise to never shave you clean, remembering every comb that resembled a baptism. Your patchwork emergence was a flight of blackbirds returning home in the spring; I tattooed a black star on my wrist to remind myself of the beauty of what was barren and reclaimed. I am sorry for never appreciating how stoically you fit to my scalp or how neatly you’d tuck under a baseball cap. Penance comes with every instance my heart surrenders to the commonplace, like how I imagine every brush as silver-plated, think of donating hair for wigs as acts of extraordinary mercy, fall in love with Rogaine commercials, melt when my girl runs her fingers over your tips like grass, break down when I catch your reflection in the mirror and can’t help but mouth the words Welcome Back.
—from Rattle #27, Summer 2007
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