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The Shame of It

by Leila Emery

"Love binds me to the one
whose hair I've found in my mouth,
whose sleeping head I kiss,
wondering, is it death?"
      --Li-Young Lee (from "Dreaming of Hair")
Tonight, the first strands
have begun to fall,
signaling my worst fear.
The shame I felt
when I heard about the relapse -
shame, because my first
thought was,
what about your beautiful hair?
The hair that took far too long to grow
back, the first time around?
As though there weren't other,
more grave things to worry about?
The caustic liquid begins
its final
of the day -
slashing and snipping what ails
your body, but taking
your golden locks as ransom.
The first time,
when you were a baby,
the baldness didn't frighten
anyone, didn't put people off guard
the way a hairless five year-old
surely will.
And that is the shame of it -
the fact that you
must walk into a classroom
of artless children,
with gaping mouths and full heads of hair.
But your hair -
the color of honey
fresh from the comb;
I gather the loose strands
in my trembling
fingers, and remember -
Hair grows after death.

A writer from Massachusetts, Leila holds a BA in Comparative Lit from Smith College and a MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Abbey, 95Notes, poetryfish, and Advocate, and the anthology 24/7: A Caregiving Anthology. She currently lives and teaches in Maryland. Her inspiration for this poem was her nephew Ian, who was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma at age two and for whom she was a primary caregiver. "By the grace of God," Leila says, "thankfully Ian is now nine and cancer free."