What My Mother Left Me

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In a faded picture of my mother, my only memento of her, she holds me on her hip as we pose in front of my birthday cake. I’m turning 2. She is 34, in a floral pink dress, gazing at the camera, her black hair cut short. It’s hard to tell how thin or thick it is.

As the Hawaii-born daughter of Filipino immigrants, I grew up with long, straight, Asian hair. I assumed I had inherited it from my dad’s mom. She kept hers in a tight bun but it cascaded to her waist when she let it unravel. In high school, my own hair was so thick I couldn’t fit it into a large banana clip. I cursed how much of it I had, a curse I wish I could take back. In college, it took more than an hour and a pair of thinning scissors for my stylist to cut my hair into something manageable. Now, I’m in and out of a chair in less than 20 minutes.

At 36 years old, I am a balding woman.

Unlike male-pattern baldness, female-pattern baldness tends to be more diffuse. Instead of a bald spot at the top of the head or a complete loss of hair, women experience a general thinning over the scalp. Though the results are different, the name is the same: androgenetic alopecia. The American Hair Loss Association website says women account for up to 40 percent of hair-loss sufferers. I imagine most of us dislike publicly discussing how emotionally traumatizing it is to lose this signifier of beauty.

I was 26 and studying in Barcelona when I first noticed strands of my hair all over the tiled apartment floor, collecting in the corners and in the shower. I wondered if it was because of the Spanish heat or my paella-and-red-wine-based diet.

A friend of mine from the Canary Islands noticed the shedding too and shared an island remedy with me: “Buy rosemary oil and put it on your scalp.”

That began the long journey to save my hair.

I’ve seen internists, endocrinologists and dermatologists, but complete blood panels find nothing wrong with my thyroid, hormones or iron count.

Over the years, I’ve tried 2 percent minoxidil for women, 5 percent for men, prescribed topical solutions, multivitamins marketed specifically for hair loss and ayurvedic treatments. I’ve even tried medication with hair-growth side effects and a laser comb I thought would blind me if I accidentally pointed it in my eye. My partner, Mark, sometimes gives me scalp massages, which feel great but don’t do much for growth either.

Now, a decade after the shedding began, it’s hard to miss my wide side part, the bald spots near my temples, or my shiny scalp under any bright light. With the cause still a mystery, I’m left wondering if this is hereditary. Did I get my hair loss from my lost mother?

After my parents divorced when I was 4, I never saw my mother again. My dad raised me with lots of help from my aunts and grandmother. They took me to school, made Christmas dinners, watched the same “My Little Pony” cartoon with me over and over. At 68, my dad still has a full head of hair, as do my paternal aunts, uncles and half-siblings. I have no memories of my mother because she left when I was so young, and the rest of my family never talks about her. I don’t know the sound of her voice, what she cooks at Thanksgiving or if she’s losing her hair too.

Over the years, close friends have asked me if I ever miss my mother. I used to say that I can’t miss what I don’t remember having. As a former self-diagnosed hypochondriac, I’ve even said that the only reason I’d want to find my mother is to know what medical conditions I may have inherited.

In the last few years, I’ve heard stories of acquaintances connecting with lost relatives, stories of ties rebuilt, stories of them permanently cut. I’ve wondered if my mother is still alive, if she ever tried to get in touch, if she thinks about me on my birthday. When Mark recently sleuthed the web to see what he could dig up, I imagined what I would say if there were a mother-daughter reunion. Do I call a stranger mom? Is it appropriate to hug? Is it weird to ask her about her hair when there are so many other questions to ask?

I haven’t yet met the woman who held me on her hip on my second birthday. Until then, I have new Chinese herbs my acupuncturist gave me to help with my balding.

Maybe that faded photo isn’t the only remnant I have of my mother after all. I might also have her hair. I just wish I had more of both.