This is the worst part," Richard Lee said. He pulled off his hat to reveal an imperfect crop of black, curly hair. It was a half-inch long in some spots, a quarter-inch in others. "My classmates think I'm going bald."
He pointed to a picture in the corner of the living room. That's how Old Mill High School used to see him, he said, with 8-inch-long, tightly rolled braids that girls reached for and guys tried to imitate. He'd worn that style for more than two years -- until he got out of bed one morning in November and saw a carefully braided bundle of hair left behind on the pillow.
Old Mill senior Richard Lee, left, is back playing lacrosse after having cancer diagnosed in October and undergoing seven chemotherapy treatments. Above, Lee is in action against Hammond.
(Photos Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)
That discovery, Lee said, began the lowest day in a three-month stretch of borderline depression. His girlfriend came over early in the afternoon and gently pulled out the rest of his hair. Lee collected it all and saved it in a plastic bag, thereby commemorating another heartbreaking to cancer.
Lee, a 17-year-old senior at Old Mill, had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosed in mid-October. Three months and seven chemotherapy treatments later, he beat the disease into remission and returned to school. He'll start as a defenseman for the lacrosse team this spring.
But Lee still grimaced when he recalled all that the disease had cost him. He lost four months of school, the second half of his senior football season and athletic scholarship opportunities to a handful of colleges.
"It's going to take a long time, but I'm going to redeem myself," Lee said. "I'm going to go nuts in lacrosse, go crazy in the weight room and work hard in school. I'm always thinking, 'I've got to get everything back.' "
He never imagined that anything would be taken away last Oct. 12, when he left his African American studies class 15 minutes early for what he expected to be a fairly routine doctor's appointment.
Lee had visited the doctor two weeks earlier to ask about a nagging quadriceps injury he suffered in a lacrosse game. That appointment had turned into a routine checkup, and the doctor ran some tests on a lump he discovered in Lee's throat. The results, the doctor said, would be ready Oct. 12.
Lee waved goodbye to his girlfriend, Nichole Parthemore, before he left school, promising to call her before football practice.
"I wasn't really worried," Parthemore said. "He thought he'd be back at school in like an hour."
He wouldn't leave the hospital for three weeks.
Inactivity had always bored him, so Lee liked to stuff his high school afternoons with a chaotic bustle of action. During his freshman football season, a coach told him that college recruiters liked athletes who played more than one sport. Sounds good, Lee said. He went out for wrestling and lacrosse.
Though he tired of wrestling after one year, Lee began a lacrosse weightlifting routine the day football season ended. Only once -- on a rainy afternoon during his sophomore year -- did he try coming home immediately after school ended. After 30 minutes spent watching TV and playing video games, Lee put on his sneakers and went outside to run.
"I'm the kind of guy who has to always be doing something," Lee said. "I've always got to be moving. That's always been my goal: Get the most out of my time."