The Long And The Short Of Chesed
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The Long And The Short Of Chesed

A ‘cancerversary’ binds a mother, a son and soon, a stranger.

The author and her son Jared, whose hair will be part of a high-tech “power cap” for a needy cancer patient. Photos courtesy of Bethany Kandel
The author and her son Jared, whose hair will be part of a high-tech “power cap” for a needy cancer patient. Photos courtesy of Bethany Kandel

T hese days, when I run my fingers through my shoulder-length, wavy hair, a few highlighted blonde strands fall out. But 12 years ago, the sprinkling became a deluge as I lost my hair in clumps. Thanks to chemotherapy after breast cancer surgery, I was going bald.

It was difficult to watch my thick mane fall out. But I decided to take control and let my husband and two sons cut my hair short and then shave my head. I posed for photos wearing a leather motorcycle jacket, looking tough and determined in all my edgy baldness.

Then chemo ended, and my hair slowly began to grow back.

It was the year of my younger son Jared’s bar mitzvah and as a busy middle schooler, it seemed he hardly noticed. Even when I was exhausted from daily radiation treatments, dinner was always on the table. During my bald stage, I often wore wigs.

But he was taking note.

People often wonder whether a child’s bar mitzvah has lasting meaning. Now I know it truly does.

As my hair slowly sprouted into a mass of kinky gray curls, bar mitzvah planning was underway. Jared worked with my husband on his d’var Torah, but I was not allowed to hear a word in advance.

The kindest cut: Jared Kandel Fishman, newly shorn.

The synagogue was packed that warm June morning as Jared read from the Torah beautifully. Then he began his speech. His portion was about Samson, the legendary Israelite warrior renowned for the immense strength he derived from his long hair before it was shaved off and he was turned over to his Philistine enemies.

Jared went on to say:

“Usually when people think of strength, they talk about physical strength, but many people do not realize that strength is not limited by one’s fitness. I believe strength comes in many forms: intelligence, bravery, creativity, etc. …

“This is the kind of strength that somebody close to me has had their whole life. … This person is my mother. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was determined to fight through it for her family, her friends, and most of all herself.

“Like Samson, she lost her hair. But unlike him, she didn’t need it for her strength. She always had that strength inside her. Through her three months of tiring chemo and tedious six weeks of daily radiation, she stayed strong and knew she would make it.

“I don’t think that for even one split second she ever doubted whether she could, and if she didn’t, I don’t know what I would do without her.”

There wasn’t a dry eye.

Fast forward to 2019. Jared recently decided to cut his hair and donate it to a breast cancer charity in honor of my 12th cancerversary. After college, he’d grown it past his shoulders, until he had a dozen inches to give away.

On the day of his haircut, my hirsute son sat in the salon chair. His hair was divided into dozens of ponytails to harvest as much as possible. With a few snips, he had a handsome crop and handfuls of thick brown waves.

We went to celebrity hairstylist Mark Garrison to make the cut. Years ago, Mark gifted me a free wig when I was bald. Now, he and wig-maker Terri Grauel have a new charity initiative, Divine Hair Donation.

Jared’s hair will create a “power cap” to help a needy cancer patient. Through the program, his long locks will be sewn onto the edges of a yarmulke-like piece of material meant to be worn under a hat to give the impression of a full head of hair.

These hairpieces are both less expensive and quicker to make than a full wig, taking only one day instead of more than 120 hours. We’ll also find out the lucky lady who gets to wear it.

These days, I look at my short-haired, clean-shaven son and marvel at the simple act of chesed that he has done, along with so many others who’ve donated their hair to various organizations. It didn’t cost a cent, but in giving a piece of himself, it was more meaningful than writing a check. By helping a woman with cancer feel beautiful during treatment, on my behalf, I know, my son definitely understands the gift of love.

Unlike Samson, Jared’s power is not in his hair; it’s in his heart.

Bethany Kandel is a New York City journalist, author, and founder of the website, BreastCancerFreebies.com..

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