Sunday, September 26, 2010


I thought it would be easier, this shedding of the hair. I didn’t want to drag it out, losing it hair by hair, feeling more and more pathetic. So I determined to have it all taken off at once, when the time was right. A day after my second chemo infusion, my hair started to come out rapidly, leaving a golf ball-sized wad of my already-short hair in the shower. Two days later, when the hunk was the size of a tennis ball and the occasional hair would gently waft past my eyes as I went about my day, I felt it was time. I called my hairdresser of 22 years. It was Saturday and her day off, but she told me to come over to her home salon.
Who says you can’t go home again, at least to get your head shaved? Several years ago, my hairdresser and her husband bought the same house in Enfield that Dan and I had lived in for eight years. We drove over and my longtime, trusted hairdresser gently buzzed away all the vestiges of her handiwork. She wouldn’t take a dime. I hugged her, thanked her for the worst haircut she’d ever given me and said I’d be back next year.
And then, almost immediately, my bravado started to crack. For the next few days, every time I looked in a mirror I was shocked anew. It was a stranger looking back at me, a stranger who had foolishly cut off all her hair and turned herself into a freak. I couldn’t imagine my daughters and husband would want to be seen with me. I could not understand why I had been in such a hurry to do this.
I didn’t completely hide. I took my morning walks in the neighborhood; I took my kids shopping, to the library and out to eat. They, to my amazement, didn’t seem fazed at all. I was so relieved; at least they weren’t traumatized or embarrassed by me.
The problem, it seemed, was me. I didn’t feel like myself, the girl who likes to look okay but has no illusions about looking great. I had completely lost my confidence in my own appearance.
Several mornings after the shaving, I woke up and felt again the bristles raking against my pillow. I started to cry. I knew I had to do something to change the way I was feeling. After I pulled myself together, I tied on a bandanna and went out for my walk.
As I passed by my neighbors’ homes that morning, I thought about a necklace I started wearing shortly after my diagnosis. It’s a simple silver chain with some items from my family on it. I call them my amulets: a turquoise ring my mother wore as a baby, a small skeleton key from my father’s family, a silver earring that my mother-in-law gave me. These charms rest near my heart, grazing my lumpectomy scar. As I walk, they jingle softly and remind me of the strength with which these beloved people led their lives.
My mother-in-law was a tiny woman, but her fierceness and love were enormous. She fought through more than her share of losses in her life, and I try to carry some of her toughness and determination with me.
From my father, I draw the shining example of a quiet and dedicated man who fought leukemia for almost ten years with dignity and grace. He faced his challenges with humor and acceptance, and he was positive yet always realistic about the course of his illness. He said leukemia was something he would die with, not from—although, in the end, he outlasted all the available treatments and it was the cancer that finally took him.
But I was not sure what I carried from my mother into this battle. She was pleasant, religious, clear-sighted and optimistic. When she found a worthy cause, she threw herself deeply into it: volunteering at church and in the community, tutoring, helping to start the local soup kitchen, collecting winter clothing for local children, educating and lobbying about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. She was a hard person to emulate, and impossible, in many ways, to measure up to.
As I walked that morning, I started to think about another facet of my mother: in addition to her estimable qualities, she was also a terrible dresser. My sister recently dubbed her the “Queen of Loud-Print Polyester”—and in the mid-1970s it took serious effort to earn that title. Shopping at second-hand stores long before that was trendy, she was so pleased with her gaudy bargains. In my adolescence, as I grew more concerned with how I looked, it seemed she cared less and less. I spent my teenage years cringing in front of my friends, embarrassed by her garish prints and clashing colors.
She hadn’t always dressed like that. In photos of her as a girl and young woman, she looked neat and put-together. Her own mother always dressed stylishly and was, I’ve been told, quite concerned with her appearance. Perhaps that’s why my mother stopped caring: she needed to be different from her mother. Or maybe, as she got older, it was as simple as this: the thrust of her life—her family and her causes—dwarfed any concern with appearances. Her interior had become more important than her exterior.
All I knew was that for the teenaged me, her exterior was something to be ashamed of. I swore I’d never dress like that. I’d never embarrass my children that way.
Yet here I was, decades later, sporting a bald head. Here I was, with two fashion-conscious daughters, who amazingly didn’t seem to care. Here I was, feeling all the eyes upon me when maybe there weren’t any at all, or just two. The eyes judging me were, apparently, my own and no others.
It almost stopped me short: what I needed was to stop caring about my own exterior. What I needed was more of that part of my mother that had so mortified me.
And right there, at that moment on the sidewalk, it got a little easier. I started to feel that this long-derided aspect of my mother could be a source not of shame, but of strength. It was an inheritance I never wanted or expected. But perhaps it was the truest legacy: the gift I never dreamed I would need, the one I spurned, the one that at long last fell into my searching hands and fit my grip perfectly.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


It’s easier to know you have cancer than not to know.
On a Friday in April, I was due to get the results from my biopsy. I called the doctor’s office in the morning to ask about the report and give my phone numbers. And then I waited, as calmly as a live wire lying across the road, twisting and sparking. The phone would ring; my heart would pound; it would not be the doctor.
It was the last day of my ten-year-old daughter’s spring vacation. Dan and I hadn’t told our kids anything yet, so I tried to act as if everything were normal. Wanting to earn a little money, Miss L asked me if I would pay her for a manicure or pedicure. We agreed: a pedicure and foot massage for three dollars. She gathered her supplies and prepared her work area. I had to edit a client’s document, so I printed out the pages and got out my red pen.
She welcomed me to her salon—the family room—seated me on the couch and propped my feet up on a stool. She asked if I wanted to hear any music. I said I did, so she put on her favorite CD, Taylor Swift’s Fearless.
Miss L went to work on my feet, first a salt scrub followed by lotion, then nail filing and finally polish. As she worked, she sang along a little to the music. She sang, “Capture it, remember it,” then told me, “that’s my favorite line.” I told her it was a very, very good line to choose as her favorite.
The rest of the day passed without a call from the surgeon. It was a sunny, warm spring evening, and Dan and I went out to the deck to have a beer. We started doing this last summer: carving out some time for ourselves—a happy hour—on Fridays, just to talk and focus on each other. That Friday, we talked of other things, but mostly, of course, of the news we were waiting for. He said he felt pretty positive; I said I didn’t. I had seen the explosion of white on my mammogram; I had heard the solemn concern in the radiologist’s voice during my biopsy.
My doctor called the next morning. I don’t recall the exact sentence he said. Was it “We did find a small cancer” or “You do have a small cancer”? The next sentence I do remember clearly: “It’s very treatable.” I went numb, but I asked questions, took notes. Dan came into the room a minute after I hung up the phone. I said, “It’s cancer,” and he burst out, “Come on!” in the same tone he directs toward the television when the shortstop lets the grounder through, when the receiver lets the wide-open pass slip through his grasping hands. “I let the team down,” I joked, still benumbed.
I told him what I had just learned: surgery first, radiation, probably chemo. I gave him the details of the tumor and the survival odds—my survival odds, now. We quickly agreed to tell our daughters that evening.
Capture it, remember it: the look on Miss L’s face as we brought cancer into her life that night at dinner. I had to turn away for a moment, just a moment, before I could look at her stunned eyes again and reach my hand out to her cheek.
Ten weeks after this day, after surgery and a great pathology report, Dan and I waited for another phone call, for more results that would change everything. My bone scan had shown an area in my right hip that could have been old damage, arthritis, a benign bone disease—or a metastasis of my breast cancer. Although my lymph nodes were clear, it is possible, if rare, for cancer cells to have traveled through my bloodstream and colonized in my skeleton. And that would mean this: stage IV instead of stage I. Incurable. I would go from a ten-year survival rate of 98% after treatment, to a five year rate of 20%. This was ugly. This was fear.
So for two weeks, we waited, through an inconclusive PET scan and then a bone biopsy, for another phone call. This time, the waiting was so much worse. I was so far from fearless. Once again, Dan was the more positive one. He said he was worried, but he just couldn’t imagine it being true. But I could. I could imagine every part of it: the call from the doctor, telling Dan, telling the girls, telling everyone. A series of treatments and complications. Fighting with the insurance company. Helping Dan get ready to be both mother and father. Trying to prepare my daughters to grow up without me.
This part of the story has a happy ending. The call came, the call that ended my depthless fear, and this time the words were, “No evidence of malignancy.” I laughed and cried right on the phone with my doctor. I texted Dan to invite him to the Happiest Hour Ever on the deck. And when he walked into the kitchen, we held on and on and on.
‘Cause I don’t know how it gets better than this / Capture it, remember it.