Katie's hair

My sister Katie started chemotherapy today. she has a particularly aggressive form of cancer that needs an aggressive poison to get rid of it.

She will lose her hair in two or three weeks, and her toenails. Did you know that you lose your toenails to chemo? One more more unpleasant new fact I learned.

Everyone identifies with their hair -- it's part of who you are.

But with Katie, it's been central to who she is -- who can't describe Katie without using the words "fierce," and "hair." 

So, because I'm thinking of her today, as I knit a hat to keep her cold head warm, here's a story I wrote years ago. Before we knew it would all be poisoned away.



Katie was eight, and my constant companion, and also my nemesis. The boys in the neighborhood loved her blonde hair, how she'd race them on her bike and would rather come home with a broken leg than come home a loser, and they begged to be honored with a game of poker.

      But she took no prisoners, and more than once we had a mother at the front door, demanding that Katie give back her son's $52 that she'd won, all in nickels and quarters.

      And when she turned her fury on a boy who didn't play by her rules, the entire neighborhood knew about it.

      She was pretty and she was fun, but after you had to climb the highest branch of the tallest tree on the street to get your jacket back, just because you teased her a little -- well, you'd remember it. Katie played HARD.

      The best part about Katie, though, is that she wasn't scared of anything.

      Not my mother and her fury, not my father and his scornful comments, and not the dark.

      So we played flashlight tag, climbed the fence into a neighbor's yard and played on their boat, snuck into the garage to look at Playboy magazines and went swimming in the middle of the night – because no one wanted to hear Katie call them a chicken.

        I was my mom's helper, though, and I liked to stay home and read more than I liked adventure, so a lot of the time Katie rounded up the two little ones for her projects and scoured the neighborhood for worshipers.

      And there were plenty – Katie's hair was the kind that stopped strangers dead in their tracks.

It was long enough to reach the center of her back, so thick it snarled and matted if not brushed all the way through every day, and so blonde it reflected sunlight. There was so much of it that you would be in awe of the thick weight of it when braided, thick and heavy and glittering. We'd go to get haircuts and the women would gather to discuss how best to cut it to show it off. Layered, like Farrah's, or long and straight?

        Katie's hair was her trademark and her weapon.

      I had to have my hair cut short.  I wouldn't spend time on it, and it wasn't blonde. It was a dirty blonde, with a hint of red. I called it strawberry blonde, though I wished it were "Titian" like Nancy Drew's. It was flat, though, and didn't do much without fussing with it. And I knew that smart girls like me didn't fuss with their hair. Girls who had to rely on their looks, like Katie, silly girls who like pink spandex pants and roller derby -- they fussed with their hair. So I didn’t fight back when my mom insisted that it be cut short.

      "It's a pixie cut," Mom said. "It'll be so cute. Like the lady who played Peter Pan."

      As if having thick glasses and being clumsy weren't enough.

      I had a pixie cut, and I bore it grudgingly. Katie had a crowning glory, and she reveled in it.

      She knew how to use a curling iron and a round brush to get her hair just like Farrah's. I could barely brush mine.

      Occasionally she'd offer to fix mine for me. After a couple of curling iron burns and a lot of fights, we mostly gave up. People stopped my mother everywhere we went to ask if Katie had an agent yet. And they asked me if I were a good big brother.

      Stupid fucking pixie cut.

      Katie embraced being female and being sexy in a way that mystified me and thrilled me by the sheer bravado of it.

      She had crushes on boys. She flirted. She kissed boys in the bedroom closet during spin the bottle, and she never backed down or ran away -- I did, every time, as she scornfully reminded me the few times I wanted to join in.

      She wore cute clothes, and made me be the minister in a marriage ceremony with Geoff, a boy who lived down the street.      Geoff was my age and smitten with Katie. I think we both simply acknowledged that she had us in her orbit, and we succumbed to it.

Meagan McGovern