In 2012, Calgary physician and single dad Dr. John van Olm sat down with his two adult children, Alexander and Dominique, and told them he was dying of lung cancer.
Over the next two years, the van Olm’s lives would go through a whole host of changes. Dr. van Olm would retire and Alexander, then a university student, would quit playing football in order to spend more time taking care of his father.
While caring for his dad, Alex began growing out his hair. Four years later (two years after his father’s passing), he made the decision to cut his hair — now most of the way down his back and a major part of his identity — and donate it to the Canadian Cancer Society.
His sister Dominique, a filmmaker, decided to capture the entire process. In the short documentary For Dad, With Love, Dominique talks to Alex about how his hair and his memory of their father became intertwined.
‘Before my dad got sick, I thought hair was just hair’
By Alexander van Olm
My university career did not begin the way I had imagined.
In first year, my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Over the course of his illness, my life was turned upside down as I tried to participate in the varsity football program, complete my coursework and look after my dad — including driving him to regular medical appointments in another city, as part of a drug therapy trial.
We had to give up our family home when my father was admitted into hospice care. I moved into my own apartment and started working part-time job as a hospital porter, both to cover my living expenses and to honor my father’s career as a physician.
Before his illness, my dad was a physician who exclusively did house calls and nursing home visits. He tended to the old and vulnerable. For many, his visit was their only social interaction in their week. My father tried to make them feel special and cared for. When I was a boy, I’d occasionally accompanied him on his rounds. I admired his devotion to his patients.
In the last six months of dad’s life, I decided to walk away from football. That was hard to do. Football had been a major part of my world, ever since junior high. After giving up athletics, I had to redefine my identity. Looking back, I realize that growing out my hair was part of that change. What began as a friendly competition among friends started to take on more meaning.
Before my dad got sick, I thought hair was just hair. He was fortunate, and very proud, not to lose his hair until the end of his life. In my job as a porter, I saw that many other people weren’t so fortunate. In addition to dealing with illness and physically taxing treatments, they also had to come to terms with the loss of identity that accompanied the loss of their hair.
I learned how significant hair can be to the way people perceive themselves. As a football player, my coaches taught me to “look good, feel good, play good.” I realized that this also applies off the field, to the battles of everyday life.
It’s why I decided to grow out and donate my hair. My dad didn’t need it, but I knew that someone much like him would. Wherever my hair has gone, I hope it has helped someone to better cope with the situation they have been dealt.
‘Courage comes in ways that we don’t necessarily recognize’
By Dominique van Olm
In 2012, my father, my brother and I had a conversation I will never forget.
In his compassionate, doctorly way, my father used charts and diagrams to explain that the tumors they found in his lungs had metastasized into something much more malignant than initially thought.
He apologetically summed up his presentation by announcing that we would only have two more years together.
This was a big turning point for everyone in my family, especially my brother. He was the one who lived with my father full-time, taking on a lot of the caregiving duties and behind the scenes work that comes with a terminal illness. It was around that time he decided to grow his hair.
Initially, he didn’t know why he was growing it out, but I believe he needed a way to mark that moment in time, and find a way to remember and reflect upon it later on.
Over the next four years, Alexander grew his hair and eventually surpassed the 8-inch minimum required for donation to the Canadian Cancer Society. The final step of the process was to cut the hair, transforming the physical manifestation of his grief over the past four years into something positive, useful and encouraging for people who have lost their own hair as part of cancer treatment.
For Dad, With Love explores my brother’s journey with grief by looking at his evolving state of mind. Courage comes in ways that we don’t necessarily recognize, and it takes time to understand that.
My brother was nervous about cutting his hair. He was nervous about the feeling of returning to a previous version of himself, and letting go of something that had become a part of him through this journey. Ultimately, he also recognized that he was at the end of something, and needed to embrace a new chapter in his life, no matter how scary that might be.
I hope this film speaks to people going through similar experiences and encourages them to be brave when going through big changes, whether they are in control of the situation or not.