The gift of dignity



About a year and a half before Priscilla’s symptoms first appeared, her hair salon announced a special event. Regular clients could get a haircut from one of their apprentice stylists, who would work under the close supervision of a master stylist, for about one-third the usual cost. “Well,” Priscilla said, “the price is certainly right, and the apprentice will be supervised, and how else is someone supposed to learn the trade?” So she made an appointment.

I have no doubt that the young woman who cut Priscilla’s hair for this event went on to acquire the skills and experience she needed to become a very accomplished stylist. But at this point in time, well, let’s just say she still needed the practice. After Priscilla got home she tried for several hours to make the haircut “work,” but gave up and called the salon. “Sorry about that,” they told her, “but we have a satisfaction guarantee. Come back tomorrow and one of our master stylists will fix it for free.”

And that was how Priscilla first met the remarkable woman I’ll call Melissa. Priscilla sat down in her chair at the salon and it took them less than five minutes to figure out that they went to the same church. (They hadn’t met before because this was our former church, which was quite large, and we typically went to different services.) The two of them really hit it off. And Melissa did a great job fixing the haircut. After this Priscilla made all of her appointments at the salon with her. She saw her several times a year and they always enjoyed catching up on each other’s lives.

Three and a half years into their friendship, in March of 2013, Priscilla came into the salon using a cane for the first time. Melissa spotted it immediately and observed, “That’s new.” “I might have MS,” Priscilla explained. “If you do have MS, I have no good news for you,” Melissa responded. A close family member had the disease and she had watched her decline over the years; at this point she was in a nursing home. We sympathized deeply with Melissa and her relative, but at the same time we were grateful to have someone in our lives who could anticipate with us the likely outcome of Priscilla’s disease—someone who would be, in effect, living in the same reality we were. To friendship was added solidarity, and this was a welcome encouragement.

Priscilla went to her next appointment with her walker. By the following one she was in a wheelchair, though she could still get in and out of it largely on her own. The next time, in December 2013, we had to do ten belt transfers to get her in and out of the car and the various chairs (hair wash, haircut, etc.) that she needed to sit in at the salon. Priscilla asked Melissa on that occasion, “If I couldn’t come here any more, would you consider coming to my home to cut my hair there? I’d pay you the same thing I pay here.” Melissa said she would.

In early March 2014, by the time the dust had settled from the diagnosis and the transition into home health care, Priscilla really needed a haircut again, but she just didn’t feel able to go out to the salon. So she emailed Melissa to see whether she would come to our home. True to her word, she said she would. Upon learning of the ALS diagnosis, she shared this prayer from Psalm 5: “Spread your protection over them, that all who love your name may be filled with joy.” She said she would be praying this for Priscilla.

On a Saturday later that month, Melissa arrived with a bag full of hairdressing supplies and equipment and gave Priscilla a great cut right in our kitchen while she sat in her wheelchair. When she was done, I brought out my checkbook and asked, “Should I just make the check payable to you?” Melissa gathered up her things in her arms and headed for the door, saying, “I didn’t want to argue about this in advance, but I’m not going to accept any payment.” “And besides,” she called back to Priscilla as she rushed out the door, “I can run faster than you!” This may have begun as a professional relationship, but clearly Melissa was now a friend and a sister in Christ, and no doubt had been that for a long time.

Priscilla expressed her heartfelt thanks in an email, saying, among other things, “You are one of those who have cared for the sick in the name of Jesus, and so have done it ‘as unto Him.’  What a wonderful thing to do for Jesus!” Melissa wrote back that she was currently in a small group that was reading together through the gospel of Matthew, and that in preparation for their next meeting, she had just finished studying the very passage that Priscilla had cited, in which Jesus reckons care for the sick, poor, hungry, etc. to have been offered to Him personally.

Based on how long Priscilla had been told she was likely to live, Melissa could realistically have expected to come and cut her hair maybe two or three more times. But because Priscilla outlived her prognosis by so much, she actually came to our home ten times. Knowing that everyone’s time is valuable, we made it clear that if she ever felt she couldn’t afford to cut Priscilla’s hair at no charge any more, we’d be glad to pay her usual rate. But she never accepted any payment. She told us instead that she felt Priscilla was doing more for her, by setting an example of what it means to live by faith and trust in God, than she was doing for Priscilla.

In December 2014 Priscilla asked for a short haircut, to make it easier for the home health aide to wash, dry, and brush her hair. Melissa showed her versatility by creating an appealing short hairstyle that Priscilla wore for the rest of her journey. (I called it a great “Audrey Hepburn look.”) “You’ll need a special brush for that,” Melissa said, and gave her just the right type. In a thank-you email, Priscilla called the brush the most useful Christmas present she’d gotten that year.

Right to the end, visitors and home healthcare workers would remark spontaneously that Priscilla’s hair looked great—often with some surprise, knowing how far along she was in the disease progression. And it was true. Melissa gave her more than her friendship, fellowship, encouragement, and service, as magnificent as these things were. She also gave her the gift of dignity.

Priscilla with her short haircut
Priscilla with her short haircut

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