It had been almost two years since I’d paid attention to my appearance: nine months of caring for my husband, who was battling cancer; and the blurry year following his death, when I was settling financial affairs, tending to the needs of our three sons, and coping with my grief and the vacuum left by his absence. I still got up every morning, washed my face, and walked out into the world. Always in a pair of worn jeans, a gray T-shirt, and a hoodie, my unruly hair as frazzled on the outside as I felt on the inside.
What did it matter? I was too busy getting my house in order and figuring out how, after 17 years of a close marriage, to fly solo again. I was too weary to care about anything, and I liked feeling secure in comfort clothes. My behavior, it turns out, was a normal expression of grief. As my therapist put it, right after the death, feelings of worthlessness (Why couldn’t I save my spouse?) and a sense of hopelessness take over. You think, “Why bother? What’s the point?” Not to mention that in light of such loss, superficial matters seem just that. Which explains the traditional widow’s black: By wearing the same nondescript garb, the mourner “disappears,” submerging both her identity and her sexuality.
In effect, my drab daily uniform sent the same message: Don’t bother me, don’t look at me. But appearing blah was only feeding a bad cycle. Increasingly, I found myself sitting in my car, outside school or a store, stalling, mustering the will to get out and show myself in public. A few months earlier, when I picked up my 13-year-old at tennis practice, he turned to me in the car and said, “Mom, you’ve got to step up your game.” I laughed, but his line woke up something in me. He was right. After more than a year, it was time. I didn’t want to be mired in sadness or the past anymore. I knew I wanted to date again. The thought of meeting someone, of having another shot at romance, was motivation enough to pull myself together.
I didn’t know exactly how I’d transform myself, but I knew where to start: from the top. Out of habit, I’d been trimming my thick hair into the same shortish, generic style, washing it a few times a week and walking out the door with it still wet. But after one too many comments from the kids (“What’s up with your hair?”) and a repeated suggestion from a close friend (“Why don’t you go the city and get a really good cut?”), I took my mop to the famed Harry Josh, John Frieda International creative consultant, who asked what I wanted. “Some shaping?” I said uncertainly. Charming Harry brushed off my answer with a smile. “You are blessed with great hair, but right now, it’s, uh, boring. I’d like to see you grow it about eight inches, to clavicle length. When you get there, you will be able to pull it back, up, let it swing.” It was as if he’d flipped a switch. I could envision it, see myself tossing my longer hair around, feeling sexy and feminine, like I hadn’t in so long.
He said it would take time and patience to get through the inevitable awkward phases. “You have to resist the temptation to cut. You’ll just go backward and spend needless money.” Not even a trim? He shook his head. It took Hilary Swank a year of no cuts to grow her hair from boy-short to below her shoulders, he told me. Did I have the stuff of Swank?
While Harry didn’t wield his scissors that afternoon, he did transform me. First, with honey and gold highlights — to cover the gray that had sprouted along my part and to give my brown hair new life.