I told myself that it doesn’t matter, that I don’t care, and that I won’t cry. But I guess it does matter and I do care because I did cry as I watched handfuls of hair swirling around my ankles and plugging the shower drain.
This is the fifth time that I’ve lost my hair to chemotherapy and really I’m used to it. I’ve learned that my bald head has a pretty good shape to it and that having no hair is surprisingly liberating. Although it helps to wear bold earrings and eye enhancing makeup, for a woman to be bald is so honest and open. I have acquired a beautiful stash of scarves and head-wraps and thanks to YouTube, I’ve learned to tie them in fashionable styles. In some ways having no hair simplifies my life. Tying a scarf or scrunching a soft head-wrap onto my noggin is much easier and faster than drying and curling or sitting in a salon chair. Of course there is the issue of having just the right color to go with whatever outfit I have planned. But just today a fellow chemo patient complimented the head-wrap I’m wearing, a silky black number with swirls of bright blue throughout. I promised her I would make one for her.
So I don’t think I’m vain about my hair loss. I think instead that the hair loss and ensuing sadness and tears symbolize something else for me. They symbolize the multiple losses that cancer has created in my life. Because of cancer I’ve lost freedom. Instead my life is governed by the appointments that are necessary for blood tests, CT scans, MRIs, chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and visits with my oncologist. Before I can plan anything I have to consider where I will be in my chemo cycle and whether or not I will feel well enough to attend an event, go on a trip, or participate in an activity. Because of cancer I’ve lost strength and endurance and therefore many of the activities that I once enjoyed, like distance swimming, mountain biking, and long days of gardening. Because of cancer I’ve lost much of the career that I worked so hard to build and that I loved so much. With that I have lost stimulating and challenging interactions with colleagues and students and I have lost rewarding, tender moments with patients. And because of cancer I have lost some of my independence, which spans from financial freedom to the day-to-day functioning of my household. But most of all, and the loss that I mourn the most, is my innocence.
I believe that there are aspects of life to which we are, and will hopefully remain, innocent. I have a sense that the human spirit can rise, prevail, and remain optimistic, at least in part, because we can be innocent to the trials, crises, and pain that await us. We begin our stint in this world with complete innocence and although life events strip it away over time, it is a gift worth nurturing for as long as possible. But cancer has robbed me of my innocence. It left me, quickly and without ceremony, but gone nevertheless.
When I hear that a friend or relative or someone in my close-knit community has received a new diagnosis of cancer, I mourn the loss of innocence that I know awaits them. As my own innocence left me, it was replaced with an uninvited insight. I learned to bravely shoulder bad news, saving my grief for the privacy of a parking lot. I became familiar with physical and emotional pain at a level that I had not known before. I learned to navigate hospitals and clinics intimately and to aggressively advocate for myself. I know what chemotherapy and radiation really feel like and how far I’m willing to go to survive. I know what it is to forego all dignity and travel thousands of miles to beg a cancer researcher to not give up on me, to not forget me, to consider me a candidate for his next clinical trial because the previous one failed. I know what it’s like to discuss a future that doesn’t include me, to literally plan my funeral so that no one else will have to, and most painful of all, to prepare my children for a life without me. Uninvited insight has shown me what’s it’s like to watch life from the sidelines–like a movie preview–getting a taste of what I won’t be around to witness.
But it doesn’t stop there. Although I have paid with my innocence, I also recognize that uninvited insight has given me a depth of knowledge and a better understanding than I had in my life before cancer. I have unwittingly received life altering lessons of grace and love and courage. I have learned that I am stronger than I ever realized, willing to withstand just about anything to lengthen my time on this earth. I have learned that I am a good mother and that even at their tender ages, I have raised daughters that are resilient and brave, kind and loving. I have learned that whether I am living or not, they will look out for one another, they will have good lives, and they will be alright. I have learned that there is indeed power in prayer and that spiritual growth is abundant during times of fear and suffering and deepest desire. I have learned to be the humble recipient of the kindness of strangers, meeting their open arms and appreciating every encouraging word and comforting deed. I have learned how truly blessed I am to have family and friends willing to drop everything to come to my rescue, to prod me along when I become doubtful, providing a kinship that defies description. I have learned to slow down, to recognize my priorities, to perfect the art of living in the moment, and to find the beauty, even for fleeting moments, in each and every day that is given to me.
Perhaps these are lessons that I should have learned earlier in life and at a lower price. I knew I was loved, that God does great things, and that the kinships I enjoy run deep. But I think that my innocence allowed me to take it all for granted, to know but not know, to lull myself into false security, and to assume it would last forever. It was the loss of innocence and the arrival of uninvited insight that taught me to whittle away at the superfluous and to focus instead on what is most important to me–God, motherhood, family and friends. It taught me to narrow my focus and to take advantage of opportunities that might enrich the lives of those I care about as well as my own. That is not to say that I have given up on frivolity. Goodness no! Frivolity is a part of my adventures, woven into my daily life, soothing my soul, and entertaining my mind. Frivolity induces hysterical laughter with my daughters over jokes that only we can understand. It encourages my mind to creatively wander, planning flower beds, decorating for holidays, and playing the piano as if for an audience. Frivolity seduces me into creating quilts beyond my ability level, exploring methods and styles as if I’ve quilted for decades.
And so, as I mourn the loss of my innocence while drying tears over lost hair and find solace in yet another quilt block, one might wonder, if I could be cured, would I give up cancer? In a heartbeat. But would I reclaim my innocence in trade for what cancer has given me? Never.