My parents sandwich me in between them – my father to my right, tapping his leg incessantly on the floor, and my mother to my left, keeping her posture as upright as she could. A man sits in a big leather chair directly in front of me, a desk serving as a barrier between us. His skin was dark. It popped out against the all-white walls of the clinic. Diplomas accent the otherwise bland paint. One even said “Harvard.” Or so I read. His eyebrows are bushy. The eyes beneath them are big and round, Filipino brown. A stubble stains his chin. The tiny hairs that stick out of it tell me that his beard was freshly shaven. His hands are joined together, resting on top of the wooden table’s glass cover. My father shakes his head.
“You have alopecia.” the doctor tells me.
The strands of falling hair crowd by the drain. They stand out amidst the white tiles of the bathroom floor. Water floods by the drain as the strands block it. I pick the ball of hair up. I throw it into the trashcan. They laid there exposed. My hand dips into the trashcan, feeling the wooly thickness of hair that gathered at the bottom. I transfer the hair into the toilet bowl.
It floats tauntingly, around and around, swirling with the urine. Half-filled, I dump the first bucket of water. The hairs continue to linger come the third. I rest a bucket full of water against my knee, on the rim of the toilet bowl. I empty the contents of the bucket with one go. Water spills over. The strands go up once more. They join the urine into the whirlpool. Clear water rises gradually as the flushing sound of the toilet roars. The bucket is returned to its corner. I dry my hair with a towel. Another is wrapped around my body.
Dangling by a rusty screw nailed onto the bathroom wall, the mirror hanging on to a thin rope possessed an unsightly image. A tiny bald patch, no bigger than a one peso coin, of smooth, fair skin peeks out on top of the right side of my head. I part my hair sideways. The patch is gone. I run a comb through my hair. It comes out with clumps of black stuck in between its teeth. I tie my hair up into a ponytail. The band goes around it four times. Twice around it used to suffice. Strands snake on my bare skin, its hue eye-popping against my flesh. More fall with the slightest tug of the hair tie. They parachute down onto the floor, joining the others that have gone before them already resting on the white tiles. I grab a rather large clip. My ponytail is rolled into a bun. The clip holds together my hair, securing all the flimsy strands firmly on my head.
Our car’s horn goes off. My father calls me from outside. “Faster!” I dump the remaining clusters of hairs that were on the floor into the trashcan. The tissue holder rolls as I pull out a third of the ply. They lay strategically on top of the garbage, covering any strand of black hair that dared to sneak out. The horn goes off once more. “I’m coming!” I yell out. I rush to my room. My school uniform is readily laid out on top of the bed.
“Alopecia areata, specifically.” he expounds, “It occurs in bald patches. There is no certain cause of it. Some says it’s hereditary, some says it’s incurred due to stress.” He takes out a piece of paper, “Some researchers believe it to be white blood cells attacking the hair follicles on the scalp.” He picks out a ballpen from his pencil holder. He draws a head. There were little sperm cell-like doodles inside it, attacking the outline of the head, and arrows pointing away from its lining. My head tilts to the side. He raises it up for us to see. “Some studies have shown that this is what causes alopecia.” He looks at his own drawing. The bushes above his eyes conjoin, “These are but assumptions. No one knows for certain what its true causes are.”
“But there is a cure for it, right?” My father asks.
“Unfortunately,” he sighs, “There is no exact treatment or medication that could cure alopecia.”
My mother sits on a couch by the wall. She smiles at me. I sit on a cold metal chair. The doctor is checking herself in the mirror, measuring the proportions of her eye shadow, studying the redness of her lips. An orange bottle sits by the sink. She turns her attention towards it. My eyes watch her as she puts on a pair of gloves, stretching the material out, flexing them in her hands. She twists the cap off. She plucks a ball of cotton out of a wad. It takes in a few drops of solution, absorbing it. “Stay still.” she instructs. It is cold against my skin.
She massages the tiny spot on my head with the cotton. It makes a squeaking sound.
“All done.” she tells me. The ball is thrown into the trashcan. She takes off her surgical gloves. They follow in pursuit of the cotton ball. “I’ll see you next week.”
“We’re not seeing any improvements.” my mother speaks out, “Her hair is still falling, the shampoo you prescribed does not work.”
“Just give it time.” she says.
I stand up from my seat. My mother hands me my green hat. She thanks the doctor as she joins me in standing. I place the hat on top of my head. The fabric touches the bare skin of my head. I cringe a little.
“My five hundred peso fee for the procedure is payable at the cashier.” the doctor reminds us.
“How come there’s a cure for cancer, but not for this?” my father argues.
“There is research being done, and maybe there are more effective treatments and medications abroad.” he answers, “However, there are none so far in the Philippines. I am sorry.”
“Then what can we do for my daughter?”
“Right now, she needs people around her to support her, friends and family to understand that there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s not sick in the sense that she’s dying, she just so happens to be losing her hair.” he digs in his drawer and lays out a couple of pamphlets on the table. “Peer groups.” he says, “A support group composed of people her age who are going through the same things as she. These are common in other countries. It helps with coping with the disease. I have been lobbying to establish one here, but have not yet been able to.”
My mother slips her hand on top of the table and gets one. She unfolds it and reads its contents. The doctor encourages me to take the other one. I try to read the cover from where I sit. I shake my head in refusal. My father takes the other one.
The doctor tells my parents to ask him if they have any concerns regarding the information on the pamphlets. He turns to me, “There is a chance that it grows back, and there’s a chance that it won’t. Surround yourself with people who don’t mind either way.” I nod. “Would you like me to conduct a seminar at your school?” he offers, “It will help your classmates in understanding what your condition is.”
“Falling hair!” the boy behind me in class screams. His finger points at the strands of hair that surround my chair and now decorate the gravel floor of our classroom. I look at him. He covers his mouth but continues to widen his bug-eyes. His seatmate laughs. The boy giggles as well.
I tie my hair. The band goes around the bundle five times. I push it aside. The girl beside me taps me on the shoulder, “You have falling hair on your blouse.” She turns my back toward her and goes on to pick them one by one.
“She has cancer.” someone whispers. I turn around to see who it was. The boy’s seatmate has a huge grin on his face. He raises his hand to cover his mouth. He bursts out laughing. The boy joins in with him.
“Hold still, there’s still some more.” I return to my former position. The girl brushes away the last few strands off my blouse, “There, all better.”
“Excuse me.” my mother speaks gently, “Isn’t there anything we can do to at least cover it, lessen it maybe?”
“She can wear a bandana or a wig if she desires.” he answers.
I shake my head.
“You can try cutting your hair shorter.” the doctor suggests, “If you think that it can prevent your hair from falling by making it lighter.”
The hairdresser spins me around in a leather chair.
“Do you want me to bob your hair, darling?” he asks as he sprays around to dampen my hair.
“Just cut it shorter.” my mother tells him, “But style it in a way that hides her bald spots.”
“What?” he shrieks. He divides my hair at the center. “Ay!” he shrieks once more at the sight of the bare skin. I can see the expression of his face from the parlor’s mirror in front of me, how his eyes widened. He returns my hair to how I style it, thicker on the right side to cover up that spot. “You’re like a Dalmatian with your patchy-patchy!” he chuckles.
“Can you do something about it?” my mother asks.
“Why, of course girlfriend!” he says, “I’ll do a side bob to hide the patchy-patchy, and I will make your little girl look fabulous!”
He puts down the sprayer and gets a sharp pair of scissors. I lift my chin up for him just as he instructs. He starts cutting off the hair above my shoulders. Snip, my hair falls onto my lap, sliding down the white sheet covering me. The cold scissors make contact with the back of my neck. Snip, another mass of hair falls onto the floor. A stack forms beneath my feet. I teeter them atop the elevated seat.
“There!” he declares. I stare at my reflection in the mirror. A bob cut replaced my long, straight hair. The ends gather together at certain parts and create spaces in between them. It is not his fault. My mother thanks the hairdresser and hands him a hundred peso bill. He tells her it’s on the house. I fixate myself on my new look. My hair looks thin. It does not shine like how it did in old pictures. I cannot see the bald patch. The girl in the mirror stares at me. Her lips curve slightly.
My mother takes a hold of my hand. She squeezes it ever so tightly. My dad continues to shake his head at every other word that the doctor utters. My mother nods whenever she agrees with the doctor. “I’m incredibly sorry.” he tells my parents, “I can refer you to a colleague of mine that is trying out an experimental procedure that still does not guarantee any results.”
“I can’t believe this.” my father scoffs.
He locks his eyes on me, “The best thing you can do is pray.” He looks at me as though he is waiting. I catch a glimpse of my father. He is massaging his temples, still shaking his head from left to right. I turn to my mother instead.
“Do you hear that?” she says to me, “You have to pray.” she tucks some hair behind my ear, “Ask Papa Lord, and Papa Jesus, and Mama Mary to make you better.”
The teacher repeats her lecture from last week. My seatmate is asleep. The whole class goes about with their own respective businesses. I take out the rosary from my bag. I silently pray as I caress its beads. From the corner of my eye, I see one of my classmates. She seats a column and two rows away from me. She taps on the table of the girl behind her. She points at me. Her friend’s eyes look at me as well. They cover their mouths and laugh heartily. Halfway through the first mystery, I stop. The rosary is stuffed once more into my bag.
The doctor stands up and offers his hand to my father.
“Thank you, doc.” he tells him.
He shakes my mother’s hand next. She stuffs the pamphlets he gave to us in her bag. My father pushes himself against the table and rises from his seat. My mother slings the strap of her bag on her shoulder. She stands up as well. I follow them.
“Do not lose hope.” the doctor gives me a pep talk before we leave, “Just keep praying. Put your trust in God and he will make your illness go away, okay?”
I raise both my eyebrows in acknowledgement.
“Thanks again, doc.” my mother says as she puts her arms around my back, “Baby, say goodbye to the doctor.”
“Goodbye.” I say. My father goes out the door almost immediately afterwards. My mother nudges me to follow. I turn around and push the glass door. It is unmoved. My mother pushes it for me, and we go out into the empty hallway.