This is an excerpt from my new book
It had been one of those perfect summer evenings. We were having a picnic at the house of my mom’s friend, who lived on a county road south of Napanee. The fields were yellow with canola. They called it rapeseed back then – an unfortunate name for such a beautiful yellow. I was on my bike, pedaling like the devil. I remember my long blonde hair blowing in the wind. I was ahead of the kids in the lineup of cyclists. There were mustang handlebars. The last thing I recall was boasting to my sister (who was well behind me on her bike) about how fast I was going.
I woke up four days later – in the hospital – not recalling the in-between. I heard later that dad got me into the back of the station wagon and I threw up all the way to the hospital. None of the emergency doctors took my condition seriously. Finally, Aunt Colleen, Mom’s sister, and mother of eight, stepped up and said, “Get a doctor in here right now, or there will be hell to pay.” Within minutes a surgeon miraculously appeared and said, “Get this girl to the operating room.”
I had a sub-cranial bleed – a broken blood vessel – pushing against my brain, making me slur my words and dribble soup down my chin. When I came to, four days later, my eyes were swollen shut. Blood pooled around my eyes, which was part of the routine healing. Because they had to check my pupils every hour, I received no pain meds. My head felt like it was splitting in two. As I surfaced, I heard flies buzzing. As I squinted through my swollen eyes, I saw shadows of a small group standing around me. Mom, Aunt Colleen for sure, but the faces and names of the rest of the group escaped me. I could hear them saying the rosary. Waking up to people standing over your bed praying is not comforting at all. Maybe I was about to die. Then a black shadow bent in, with a cigarette-smelling thumb soaked in oil, and then this greasy digit painted the sign of the cross on my forehead. The fingerprint belonged to the parish priest, Father O’Neill – a lovely man with a nasal voice that tortured us all with his sermons every Sunday. He leaned in over the bed and said, “Welcome back. God saved you for a reason.” Then he left, not explaining what that reason was.
I was a teenager, so I wasn’t allowed on the pediatric floor. I had been put on the cardiac wing in a private room, with no buzzer to push for help. There was a bell on my dinner tray I was supposed to ring should I need to be taken to the bathroom. But after ringing it several times to no avail, I finally walked down the hall to the bathroom on my own. When I returned to my room, I saw a bag taped to the bottom of the bed. When I looked in, it was full of hair.
Why did they put hair in a bag? I instinctively reached for my head, swaddled in white cloth, and slowly began to realize that underneath the bandages, I was bald.
What am I supposed to do with the hair in the bag? Make a hairpiece from it? Knit it into a sweater?
The accident was profitable. I cleaned up financially: my family gave me cards and toys and money – $42 to be exact. Two dollars more than the amount I would’ve made had I continued to babysit the two boys down the road. And now I didn’t have to toilet train the youngest one.
Until Kevin called it a brain injury it never occurred to me that was what happened to me. When someone came to visit me, after the accident if someone even suggested it was a brain injury, my mother bent over backward to reassure them that I was completely normal because it was only a “head injury,” Head? Brain? Weren’t they the same thing?
Except for a future lifetime hatred of cycling, no long-term damage was done, but I felt far from normal. Before the accident, I was Debbie Ann Kimmett, who had a full head of beautiful blonde hair. After the accident, I was bald Debi with an ‘i’ who was about to enter Grade Nine. It was 1970, and Sinead O’Connor hadn’t arrived on the scene, so bald heads weren’t acceptable fashion statements. If this had happened today, other kids would have shaved their heads in solidarity. They would have painted henna designs on my bald pate. Someone would have started a GoFundMe. Or the Make-A-Wish Foundation would have taken me to see Annie, and I’d have gone backstage to meet Daddy Warbucks. No one made a fuss or guided me. God was testing me, but for what I didn’t know.
My first trial was when my mother and I went shopping for my new head of hair at Sears. She wanted me to go with something short and perky, something that suited my age – a reasonable request if I was playing the mom on “The Partridge Family.” Before the accident, I had hair down past my shoulders, so I wanted a wig that reminded me of the person I was before. After much deliberation, I chose an ash blonde polyester wig that hit my shoulders. For years, I remembered it as a bouffant, a cross between what Farrah Fawcett and Dolly Parton would wear. When I saw the picture recently, the look was far less country and more secretarial school.
When I came out of the Sears changing room, Mom gasped, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Look at that monstrosity. You’re going to stick out like a sore thumb.” (It was ironic that less than a week later, she suggested I wear one of my brother’s hockey helmets to the Napanee Fair because she didn’t want me to hurt my head on the Tilt-A-Whirl.) Despite her objections, she paid for half the wig, and the rest I paid with my money from the accident. Then the wig and I headed off to Grade Nine.
My second trial was dealing with my goofy neighbor named Dean, who would ask me the same question every time he saw me. “Is that a wig you are wearing, Debi Kimmett?”
And, every single day, I would lie and say, “No. No. Dean, this is not a wig.” I’d quickly place both my hands on my head and serpentine down the hallways, so neither he nor any of the other idiots in high school would pull it off. Then, I’d brace for the bus ride home.
School buses are a living Hell at the best of times. Let’s put 30 kids in a yellow death trap with no seat belts, then hire a directionally challenged person for minimum wage who can never find any of the familiar landmarks. Some frazzled woman would be barreling up the 401, casually hunched over the wheel, yelling to the back of the bus, “Where is the CN Tower exactly?” You’d have a higher chance of safely arriving at your destination if you were in a Corrections Canada van.
But every day, on top of the usual Gong Show, a simpleton named Barry (he had a twin called Harry – it appeared that they shared the same brain) would crawl up behind me and try to pull off the wig. I rode home with both hands over my head, and he’d grab for my hair and stop just short of touching me, then run to the back of the bus laughing with his crew of thick-necks. It was a confusing time.
On the one hand, I liked boys and wanted their attention, just not from the Barrys of the world. I wanted a guy like Mike K from the homeroom to pay attention. He was a Kennard. I was Kimmett. Despite our K connection, Mike never spoke to me. He was either introverted or stoned. Many days during the morning announcements, he’d squeeze white glue on his palm to watch it dry. He had dark long, chin-length hair, which he was always chewing on. That wet lock stuck to his face made him even more attractive. His locker was next to mine, and standing that close to him, I’d break out in a full sweat. He was all I thought about. In the bathroom, I’d look in the mirror and practice saying hello. Hi, Mike. Hello, Michael. Hey, M. But I never managed to emit more than a squeak when he stood next to me.
I fantasized that he and I were making out in the back of his car. (He was only in Grade Nine and didn’t even drive yet, but fantasies don’t require learner’s permits.) As we were hugging and kissing with his fingers running through my polyester hair, he would accidentally pull off my wig and reveal my bald head. In this scenario, Mike did not mind my stubble. Mike was not shallow like most guys. He would’ve looked at that beautiful bald head of mine and asked me to the prom. In turn, I would’ve made a macramé halter top for myself and for him a matching cowboy vest. We would have been married at the Sadie Hawkins Dance, and I’d get him off “the drugs,” and he’d fight me on it, but when he became a famous hockey player for the NHL, he’d go on “The Tonight Show” and tell Johnny Carson, “Deb saved my life.” Even then, I was saving an imaginary boyfriend from drug addiction.
Mike wasn’t interested in me saving him because he didn’t know I was alive – which, if you read The Grade Nine Handbook, is Rule #47: The Mike Ks of the world never like you back. Even though I prayed faithfully, God didn’t give me the cute guy. In my nightly prayers, I begged God for my hair to grow back faster than everyone else’s: “I know you created hair to grow a quarter inch a month, but please, please let mine grow an inch a month, please can you speed it up a bit?” Every morning, I checked the mirror to see if I had grown my blonde locks again, and every morning it was still the same stubble. God also took away the blonde and made me a brunette. God didn’t give me any special treatment, and neither did anyone else.
Having a brain bleed didn’t get me out of housework: I had to vacuum, do the dishes, and take care of the little kids. I hated taking care of all those kids. As there were six of us, my parents had little, if any, time to coddle or even understand that I might be anxious about being re-injured. We said the rosary every night and ripped off a stream of special intentions for children of war and single mothers who wanted to have an abortion, but I don’t recall my bald head getting as much as an honorable mention. I donned my wig and carried on.
The only person who saw that I might be suffering was my Grandma Brady – an outlier of a woman-the one who wore hot pants and white shoes to church. And she too wore a wig. For years she had kept the gray away by dying her hair black with a temporary black spray. As a blonde, you didn’t dare borrow her hairbrush or you’d go home looking like a skunk. Finally, she got sick of the bother involved in covering the roots and bought several cheap wigs from Woolworths. If you went into her closet, you would see wig heads staring at you. When she saw me tugging at mine, she said, “It looks fine.”
“Mom thinks it’s too much.”
To Grandma Brady, my wig was not too much at all. She felt it wasn’t quite enough. “You could use a little volume.” She’d stand over me, ratting it out, spraying hairspray. When I stayed overnight, sometimes she’d wash my wig, curl it with her steel curlers, and one night while I sat with a toque on, I told her about Barry, and she asked what I was going to do about it. I said I thought God was testing me to rise above the situation and that I was praying for him. She shook her head. “Prayer doesn’t work in this situation. You know why? Because men do whatever the hell they like. They are arseholes. Did I ever tell you that?”
“Yes, you have mentioned that.” She told me men were arseholes all the time, and so did her daughters. Grandma thought her husband was one. As well as most of her sons. And for sure all her sons-in-law. Since men did what they liked, they needed to be put in their place. “Praying for arseholes is pointless. Do you know what I believe? God helps those who help themselves!”
“What should I do?”
“The first thing you need is to get a scarf.” She opened her top drawer and pulled out a purple scarf from her collection of cheap multi-colour Woolworth’s scarves, tied it around the back of my head, then took the two ends, pulled them around my chin, and told me to hold on to each end. “When that little bastard goes to pull your wig off, you hold the scarf tight. Got it?” I nodded and then she winked. “We are just two girls trying to beat the men at their own game.”
I had no idea what game we were beating them at, but the following Monday, the wig and I got back on the bus along with Grandma’s “go big or stay home” fashion tips. I entered the bus in her purple hot pants, black plastic boots, and mascara so thickly spread on it looked like ants were crawling under my eyes. I sat down, grabbed the tails of the scarf, and wrapped them around the front of my neck. Barry snuck up behind me. I felt his hand nearing my head, so I turned to him and said, “Can I help you?” Then I winked as Grandma had, and he turned red and skulked back to his seat with his hands between his legs. Just like the monkey Barry felt desire and shame at the same moment. I too felt something strange and powerful like I had just discovered fire. Was it Grandma’s wig that had done this or had I developed a superpower that could reduce men to ashes?
Would you like to see my show Overnight Sensation in May? There is one on May 1st at 2pm and one on May 8th at 2pm! * Yes, Mother’s Day!