“See that tree, honey?” I said to my husband Kevin. “It’s one of my favorites in our front yard. And like the hairs on my head, the leaves were abundant yesterday.”
I remember getting out of the car and stopping. Marveling at the fullness. The vibrancy.
The leaves have now fallen. Beautiful but no longer on their branches. They lay on the ground now. Everywhere.
Tears started welling up in my eyes.
“I’ll clean them up, babe,” Kev said right away.
“Are you sure honey?” I replied.
“Yes, no problem.”
He had no idea this wasn’t about the leaves. Gently pulling him closer, I slowly looked up and into his kind eyes as the tears quickly fell from mine. “The leaves are just like my hair, honey. “
I found my dark hair all over my pillow and our sheets this morning. Everywhere. It was just on my head yesterday. It’s happening. This is a new season.
“Please hold me, Kev. I’m bracing myself for the cold. It’s going to get very cold, my love.”
“Oh Jenneijoon, you aren’t alone,” Kevin replied. “And just like that tree that you love, this little tree that I am holding will get her hair back too. She will be full again. Vibrant.”
We came in and began getting ready for dinner. My 3-year-old daughter Ahzi usually likes to help. Kev helps too, by helping Ahzi “help” me (which usually means Kevin following Ahzi around, cleaning up after her “helping” hands have spread a lot of mess — I mean joy — all over the kitchen).
And although just seconds ago I was sharing the heaviness of my heart with Kevin, it was time to put that aside. I have a shelf that I place my worrisome bundle on when I come through the front door. It allows me to move on and be a present mother to Ahzi and a loving wife to Kevin, to keep my cancer from overtaking our evening.
It was our time together. Hair or no hair. I was with Kevin and Ahzi. I was warm.
We woke up the next morning, and Daddy was already at work – his early shift. And as usual, my little girl with her sweet mop of brown curly hair be-bopped her way to my side of the bed, grabbing hold of our comforter and pulling herself up.
“I’m baaaack,” she said, happily pouncing her little body on top of mine.”
“Oh mommy is so happy you are back! Good morning Ahzijoon. I love you!”
We lay there together — our limbs intertwined, and our hearts too. This is how we usually start our days — cuddling and just sharing with one another.
Ahzi usually tells me all about the vivid dream she had during her sleep, and asks me about my dreams too until she tells me that it’s time for apple juice and Cheerios.
This morning she had a concerned look on her face. And it wasn’t regarding her breakfast.
“Yes honey,” I answered.
“How come your hair looks like that? I don’t like it. It’s weird. I miss your pretty princess hair, Mommy.”
“Mommy will be right back, Ahzi,” I swung off my bed as quickly as the morning atrophy in my legs would allow. I tried to get out of there before she saw my face.
“OK, Mommy,” Ahzi replied.
I went into the kitchen. I put my face into my hands and just cried. Ahzi was right. I looked awful. Sick. Weird. And although I knew and felt all of these things, hearing it out loud from Ahzi’s 3-year-old mouth made it so very real. She saw everything that was happening. I couldn’t shield her from this. I couldn’t stop it. I used to be beautiful. The world looked at me and would tell me so. I used to feel beautiful.
Standing in the kitchen, trying to collect myself, a memory came to me that has always been one of my favorite moments with Ahzi.
When Ahzi was about 1½ we were in the kitchen. I was holding her on my hip as we were preparing dinner — our usual routine before Daddy got home. She’s always loved being in the kitchen with me. Thank God – because it means that all of the culinary school loans that I will still be paying off when Ahzi enters college herself aren’t totally in vain. We were laughing, having fun and then Ahzi got very quiet. She looked at me seriously and said, “Stop, Mommy.”
She started stroking the long dark pieces of my thick beautiful hair near my face. She trickled her little baby fingers over my eyebrows, giggling, and then made her way down the slope of my Middle Eastern nose, finally landing on my lips. Her eyes got big. Excited as they do when something is larger than she expected. She was memorizing the feel of her mommy’s face. She took both of those little baby hands and planted each one on the cheeks of my face. Then she stopped and smiled the sweetest smile I’d ever seen from her and gently whispered, “Mommy, you are so beautiful to me.”
I will never forget that moment. And I never felt more beautiful. This was Ahzi’s mommy. Not this shell of a human being that Ahzi was looking at today. Weak. Hairless. Searching for ways to hide her illness. Working so hard to cover up the hair that wasn’t even there anymore.
Ahzi was right. How do I tell her? Explain what’s happening to her mommy?
“Momm-Mee, Momm-Mee, come back to your big boat!” Azhi said, using the word we have for our bed. “I am waiting. Come snuggle me in our big boat. ”
“Coming, Ahzijoon. Give mommy a couple minutes. I am getting you your apple juice and Cheerios.”
I went back in my bedroom. She was still cuddled up in my bed. It was time. So I tried.
“Hey Ahzi, I know this looks strange. And yes, even weird. But it hurts Mommy’s feelings when you use the word weird. That’s not a good word to use. This is just different. Mommy’s hair is different right now, honey. Mommy is sick right now but it will come back. And lots of people have different kinds of hairstyles.”
“You mean like at the store Mommy?” Ahzi said with a gleam in her eye.
“Sure, Ahzi. Did you see someone with different hair at the store?” I responded.
“Yes, Mommy. The girl with pretty princess purple hair. Remember?”
“Yes! I do remember! “ I replied. “At Whole Foods. See Ahzi. That hair is different than yours. Different than mine, and it’s pretty! Maybe we use a different word than weird.”
“OK Mommy, your hair now looks like Daddy’s,” she said playfully.
We both giggled. It did. And I didn’t mind it. I was fond of Daddy and his shaved head. They say the longer you’re with your partner, you start to look like them. They say the same about pets. I thought to myself, maybe we should go get a Chinese Crested Dog – a hairless dog breed — and our family will be complete? (It’s a sign that I’m still very much here. I can still joke, even about this).
“Come here, Mommy. Let me hug your bald head. I love you.” Ahzi’s bright green eyes were filled with compassion for me.
Days had passed. And my first column had just come out in My Edmonds News. I was receiving some really wonderful comments and feedback from the readers. I was elated to say the least. How exciting! As I’m fighting for my life, a life dream is coming true! I’m a writer and people were actually reading my words. For the first time in a year I was doing something that was for me — beyond just working so hard to stay alive.
This opportunity was as if someone blew the biggest gulp of fresh air into these tumor-clad lungs. Ahhh – life. What a gift you are. I was receiving encouraging messages from fellow cancer patients, supportive proud friends, actual neighbors in this beautiful town we get to live in. Then, when checking my messages via Facebook Messenger, I noticed two from names I didn’t know.
“Kevin! Kevin! Baba!,” I said, using a term of endearment common in our Persian culture. Come here. Come here babe!!!”
“What? What is it, Jenniejoon?” he asked as he came running into our bedroom, still in his work clothes.
I had received a message from a former KING 5 broadcaster and a current reporter who had read my column in My Edmonds News. They wanted to come do a story on us for Thanksgiving, with a message of hope.
“They gave me accolades on my column,” I told Kevin. “I can’t even believe it! I can’t wait to tell my writing professor from college 20 years ago. I’m a writer baba! A real writer!”
Kevin grabbed me. We embraced, like the embraces before the chemo. Before the fragility of my body, bones and heart. And I didn’t stop him.
“Squeeze me tighter honey!”
“OK — as you wish my love,” Kevin replied.
Oh, this felt so good.
“But wait,” I replied. “What about my hair? It’s going so quickly, Kev. I don’t think I’ll have any by the time they make it here to interview us.” Worry immediately took over as I said it.
“It’s going to be OK,” Kevin said. “You know how I know? Because it’s you. You just be you. They will see you, hair or no hair. They will see the Jenniejoon I do.
“But I understand what you are saying,” he added. “Should we go look for a wig for you?”
“I think it’s time,” I replied. “I just don’t want to be a phony, you know? After all, I just gotten used to my short hair, which had been growing out after radiation.
“I am going to really have to think about it,” I said. “How I want people to see me. But maybe we go look for one just in case.”
“Should we shave it first, honey?” Kevin knew to ask.
“Yes, please,” I replied. “My scalp hurts. Every follicle hurts. Let’s just get rid of what’s left of it. It might look better if it’s all gone instead of the clumps of hair falling everywhere. It’s depressing.”
Then I had a thought. “Should we involve Ahzi, Kev?”
“Let’s sleep on it and decide tomorrow,” he answered.
“OK, sounds good my love. I love you so much, Kevin. Thank you for loving me. For being here for me. For not giving up on me. Let’s sleep on it.”
As the words left my mouth, I held onto my dear husband and closed my eyes. Today was done.
The next morning, the brown curly mop skipped her way into our room, jumped in our bed and our day began. And it looked like we weren’t alone in “sleeping on it.”
“Good morning, Ahzi!” I groggily exclaimed.
“Look Mommy! Daddy is here too,” Ahzi proclaimed.
“Yes Ahzijoon, it’s Daddy’s day off today,” Kevin replied.
“Yay, yay, yay! I know what we can do today, Daddy!”
“OK, Ahzijoon. Tell us.”
“Mommy, I will help you shave your head. Come on. Let’s go. Daddy, can you make Mommy laugh? Tell Mommy a joke, Daddy. Mommy loves your jokes.”
And just like that, we found our way through the other side that morning. Together. And I couldn’t love these two more for holding my hand and the clippers.
When it comes to our sweet little Ahzi, Kevin and I aren’t quite sure how to get through this. Imagine trying to explain to a 3-year-old what’s happening to her mommy. There is no playbook. We don’t want to scare her. Yet we want to involve her. She wants to be a part of this.
So, Kevin and I are trying our best to show Ahzi what courage looks like when life gets unbearably hard. How to find our way together. How to pray. How to trust God. And to let her know that she is loved so very much by her mommy and daddy. And that Mommy and Daddy love one another too. No matter what.
As a mother — a mother who lost her own mom very young to cancer — this was my one fear in life. I never wanted my child to hurt the way I did for my mom. I never wanted my child to see me sick the way I saw this disease physically change my mother. My heart has been shattered, that as her mother I can’t protect her from this. I cannot stop it from happening.
It’s not just hair. It’s a reminder that I’m very sick. Every time I look in the mirror, or when my daughter looks at me, we see it.
I wish she didn’t have to experience any of this. But my God, I couldn’t be more proud of this little 3-year-old and her mighty heart – and the compassion she has shown me, her mom.
The next day, a very dear friend met me at the wig shop. I nervously returned home wearing one of the wigs that I had purchased. What were Ahzi and Kevin going to think?
I barely got through the door when Ahzi came running over and leapt into my arms.
“Hold on Ahzjijoon, let mommy put my purse down please,” I said as I giggled at the excitement in her little voice.
“I love your wig, Momma! “ Ahzi said. “You look beautiful! You have to wear it every day Mommy! Every day. You look so pretty! Just like your princess hair!”
I burst into tears again in my kitchen. This time from pure joy. She liked it.
Kev took all of my belongings and started hanging them up in our hall closet.
And just like she did when she was 1 1/2, Ahzi took her little hands and started touching the dark brown pieces of my (new) hair near my face. She then ran her little hands across my eyebrows and down the slope of my nose, and just like before, she smiled when she got to my plump lips. Reacquainting herself with her mommy’s face. And again, just like before, she rested each of her sweet little hands on my cheeks, stopped, and gently whispered, “Mommy, you are still so beautiful to me.”
The three of us stood in our kitchen, our arms wrapped around each other in a single embrace.
“I love you Mommy and Daddy. You’re my favorite.”
“We love you too, Ahzijoon. You’re our favorite,” Kevin and I replied in unison.
And if you’re wondering what I decided about the wig for our interview with KING 5 News… I had a conversation with one of my oncology nurses two days before the interview. She asked me what did I feel most comfortable in? What made me feel more vibrant? Because that’s what she sees when she looks at me. She doesn’t see stage 4 cancer. She doesn’t see someone who is dying. She sees me. A mother, a friend, wife, a sister and daughter who wants to live! She sees positivity and the life in my eyes. And however I felt that I portrayed that best, is how I should answer the door that day.
Someone had other plans.
“Mommy, let’s be Princess and Queen on the news for everyone to see! Everyone will see us. You will be beautiful! I will be Snow White and you will be the Queen!”
“Ahzi, are you sure?” I asked. And then I sat there for a good three minutes. “Show up as Queen and Princess?” I finally replied. “You mean like we do every day? Like you go to the grocery store, Ahzi? Or how you go to school some days?
“That’s a fantastic idea,” I said. “Let’s do it, girl! Want to do Mommy’s make up, too?”
“Yes Mommy, Yes!,” Ahzi replied.
So on that day, which I had shed anxious tears and had lost precious sleep over because I didn’t have my own hair, the Queen with her gorgeous long synthetic hair and Snow White and her dark little pixie cut answered the door for the reporter and cameraman.
When reporter Ericasked me why were in our princess garb, it was the perfect entryway into the world we have been living this past year.
“This is one of the ways that we love to play,” I said. “With our reality being so very difficult right now, we like to escape for a while and become Princess and Queen, or Minnie and Mickey or Anna and Elsa. We try to use our imagination and have a lot of fun. It makes the really hard days less hard.”
And with that, we welcomed Eric and his cameraman — also named Eric — into our home.
Over the next couple of hours, we had a really good time. It was very comfortable. We talked. I also shared some of the allergy- friendly food treats from the company I started before I got sick. Ahzi and I made them in preparation for this very special day.
KING-TV ran our story that same night. We had no idea how it would turn out but never expected that it would become so special to us — something that our family will have forever. That my little Ahzi will have.
I wasn’t overly thrilled with my appearance but by now it really didn’t really matter. KING 5 did a wonderful piece on our family, about the hope we live by. Hope wasn’t attached to my hair. Hope was inside of me. It is inside of me.
And they did the story after seeing my first column for My Edmonds News! Things are happening that I am so very humbled by, and I’m equally inspired to keep fighting hard for this wonderful life. And that’s a good look. Hair or no hair.
So I’ve decided, it’s going to take a lot more than hair to wig out this cancer-fighting friend, sister, daughter, writer, wife and mother! I’m still here. And very much alive. Warm.
— By Jennifer Sabounchi
Edmonds resident Jennifer Sabounchi has served as a special events manager for The Ritz-Carlton in New York, a private chef to families in and around Seattle, and founder of an allergy-friendly food company. Recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Jenn’s new column — “Life, Thank You for Having Me” — provides an intimate portrait of her fight for her life. She also invites readers to get to know her and her family by visiting her Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/jennifer.sabounchi