The Crying Gift

When my children were little they would excitedly give me a homemade creation as a gift on a special occasion and it would often bring me to tears.  They didn’t understand it then, but now that they are grown they get it, and every year at Christmas they do their best to buy me a “Crying Gift,” one of those sentimental presents that you can give a loved one that touches their heart in a special way.  I find myself doing the same, trying to find something that expresses how much they are loved and how their presence in my world makes it such a magical place.  Something that says, “I see you.”

This year, I bought Adrienne a hair turban drying towel for Christmas.

And she burst into tears when she opened it.

Until I was there, watching the emotional cost losing her hair had on my 27-year-old daughter, I could never have understood the toll it would take. I experienced, along with her, the comments people say in response to the hair loss that usually goes with the standard-of-care chemotherapy regimen for breast cancer that is still localized. 

  • “Wow you really pull off that bald look.” 
  • “It must save you so much time getting ready.” 
  • “It’s only hair it could be worse.” 
  • “It will grow back, right?”
  • “You look so good in short hair!”

On the surface some of these seem like they are offering support, and I am sure that is the intent.  What is lost here is that the trauma of hair loss can equal or exceed many of the challenges cancer patients face. 

Chemotherapy-induced hair loss strips the cancer patient of privacy. It announces to the world that you are sick and that changes how people react to you. Regardless of how much you want them to just see you as you, not the girl with cancer, the bald-headed image most often associated with breast cancer in media and fundraising campaigns means that total strangers know something about you that you would never have chosen to share with them. While you are doing your best to manage one of the most devastating experiences of your young life, your appearance means that you are open season for comments or suggestions about how you should have been or should now be living your life. When you are feeling scared, angry, panicked and like you want to scream into the void about how unfair this all is, you are saddled with the responsibility of being an “inspiration.”  And even if you can cover your head with a wig or a beautiful scarf, your face tells the tale.

A total stranger complimented Adrienne on her short hairstyle when we were sitting on a walkway bench four months on from her last chemotherapy treatment. I saw the distress in Adrienne’s eyes as she searched for a response, the trauma of the last 14 months evident on her face. The face which now had some eyebrows and eyelashes on it to accompany the hair on her head, meaning the right to privacy that she was not used to having was back in force.  In the end, she just said thank you.  After the woman walked away she looked at me and said, “What was I supposed to say? This is regrowth from chemotherapy? She’s a stranger, she doesn’t need to know that.”

The power of that statement. That she was a stranger and didn’t need or have the right to know about Adrienne’s cancer experience.  That what was now understood as the luxury of privacy was once more part of my child’s existence and oh my… how HUGE that actually was.

It took a while for Adrienne’s hair to get to a place that when she looks in the mirror she sees only her again and not the memory of her cancer diagnosis staring with her over her shoulder. While the trauma is still there, it has been muted ever so slightly by the regrowth, and when she delightedly sent me a picture of her little ponytail in the late fall, I opened my computer and started to look. For the perfect crying gift.  The one that would say, “I see you, I know what this means.”  

Mission accomplished.


Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California.  She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure.  When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed!  Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter, Adrienne, as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Read more from Debbie on her experience as a caregiver to her daughter, here.

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