Miracle on 7th Street

Posted by Jessica Armstrong on

Peyton Armstrong with a bald head during his childhood cancer chemotherapy treatmentIt’s a snowy morning in late December 2010 and I’m walking into a hair salon with a gallon-size ziplock bag in my hand. The hair salon is on 7th street in downtown Glenwood Springs, Colorado. You’d think it would be easy to find because it’s called the 7th Street Salon, but if you blink, you would miss it. It’s tiny, but I love how that makes it intimate, allowing everyone to hear and join in on each other’s conversations. 

I say hello to the owner of the salon, Carla, and to my hair stylist, Tina. They look at the bag in my hand and smile. Tina asks “Are you ready?” I tell her simply ”yes”, but then when I see the other ziplock bag on the counter at her station, I feel a little bit more encouraged and so I add, “I think he will understand.”

Tina has been my hair stylist for years. She knows that I don’t cut my hair. I get trims. That’s it. But today I am going to break away from my normal. Originally, I wondered if I had it in me to shave it all off, go completely bald. I would do it for him. But Peyton wouldn’t have it. He was already thoroughly not okay with me doing what I was about to do. He said to me, “I don’t want anything else to change, Mom.”  Cancer has changed so much already, he didn’t want me to change too.

I want to honor his wishes, so I struggle with what I am about to do, but he will be losing his hair - ALL his hair - soon, and I don’t want him to be the only one in his life to have a change to this defining feature. 

I can’t count the many times Peyton was told that he should shave his hair off, because "it can be really hard to see it falling out". Even before his hair showed any signs of being affected by the chemotherapy, he was given this advice. Peyton ignored everyone who said this to him - doctors, nurses, people in the waiting areas. He said to me “Mom, I’m just gonna let it do what it’s gonna do.”  For Peyton, a drastic and sudden change to his hair would be too much of a shock, another major change to adjust to and we were only a fews months into adjusting to the “new normal” of cancer. 

I sit in one of the three closely-spaced swivel chairs and place my ziplock bag down on the counter. I pick up the other ziplock bag on the counter and look at the strawberry blonde ponytail inside. I say to Tina, “Sarah’s beautiful ponytail looks healthy. I hope my hair can be used, that it's not too layered and too bleached and dry.” 

Two weeks ago, I had told my friend, Sarah Thornal, that I was going to donate my hair to an organization called Little Princess Trust. I love this organization. They make wigs for children in cancer treatment using photographs to match their hair to what it was before they had cancer. Sarah loved this too and being a supportive friend she said she would also like to donate her hair.  Donating my hair so another child could deal better with the side effect of baldness helped me broach the subject of my hair changing with Peyton. There is so much to think about, to care about, to do something about with childhood cancer. Often a decision to do one thing creates an opportunity to help in more than one way. 

Tina combs my hair back into a tight ponytail. She measures the length of it and enthusiastically announces that I have a little over 10 inches, the amount required for Little Princess Trust to make a wig for a little princess or prince.  

I can feel my heart pounding as I think of how my doing this will be hard on Peyton. But it’s too late now. Tina is already snipping my hair. It’s all over in a matter of seconds. She hands me my ponytail. The front door opens and a conversation behind me between a man and Carla helps to distract my thoughts as I carefully place my hair into the ziplock bag. I hear Carla say “John, I’m so glad there was a cancellation this morning! It’s lucky you called and I was able to get you in. Your mom can tell you that I’m usually booked weeks out.”

I set the bag with my ponytail next to Sarah’s and as I sit back in the chair for Tina to finish cutting my hair, I catch a glimpse of this man, John, in the mirror. My heart that had been pounding suddenly feels like it has come to a dead stop. I grab Tina’s shoulder and nod for her to look. We both stare in amazement while John walks over to Carla’s station and as he sits down, takes the ponytail that extended past his jean pockets and sweeps it behind him over the back of the chair.

Carla asks “Are we just doing a trim, John?”

John replies, “I’d like to cut my ponytail off.”

Tina is frozen with her scissors in mid-air. 

Carla whisks her head around and looks at me with wide eyes. 

I'm not breathing. 

We can’t believe what we just heard. 

John has a look of confusion on his face. His eyes land on mine as I walk over to him with a ziplock bag in each hand.

I tell him my name and it’s nice to meet you. I tell him that these ponytails will be made into wigs for children who lost their hair to cancer.  I tell him that I overheard that he wants to cut off his ponytail. 

John’s eyes fill with tears as he looks at what will be future wigs for children and I wonder if he is imagining like I have — two little children who will have these as part of their childhood. 

John says “You can have my hair,” and “it would be an honor to have it become a wig for a child with cancer.”  I can’t express how much this means to me to see how touched he is. In a shaky voice, I ask him how long it took him to grow out his hair to that length. He says he’s been growing it since he was 13 years old, that he’s now 23. So for 10 years he’s been growing it and has not cut it until this day. 

I tell John that my little boy, Peyton, is 10 years old and that he was recently diagnosed with leukemia. As I tell him, it hits me that John has been growing his hair from the time Peyton was born.

John asks when Peyton will be done with treatment. I pause for a few seconds before I tell him, “When he is 13; the age you started growing your hair long.” 

In less than a minute, Carla hands John his ponytail and John gives it to me and as he does he says, “I woke up this morning and had the thought — it’s time to cut my hair — and now I know why.” 

I thanked John. Tina finishes cutting my hair and I go straight home to Peyton. Before he can say anything about my hair, I tell him in one breath what happened, showing him how long John’s ponytail is — enough to make 3 wigs.  Peyton looks up from the ponytails, touches my hair and says with a sweet and understanding smile, “I like it Mom.” 

Thank you John Steuben, then and this many years later, when we share the miracle that took place on 7th street once again.

 

 

Jessica ArmstrongJess is Peyton’s mom and co-founder of Peyton’s Potion. She is a Life Story journal writer and storyteller. Jess has been keeping journals since she first learned to write. Her journal entries throughout Peyton’s cancer treatment were also posted regularly on caringbridge.org

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