The time of baldness is a blur now, a long, sustained surreal blur in which I became ultra-focused on hats, scarves, and bandanas, and lost the habit of reaching for shampoo in the shower. I still forget to wash my new hair on a regular basis.
I suppose I'm in denial about this new hair.
When it first started coming in, so white, I was amused. It felt like I was wearing the remnant of a daring Halloween costume, hard core biker punk-rock roller derby chick, or Susan Powter in the height of her "Stop the Insanity!" kick. I liked it. (psst - don't know that reference? Feast your eyes here.) But then, as more and more hair came in, darker but still absolutely gray, I saw a pixie-faced prematurely old woman in the mirror. It felt like someone had stolen years of my life, not to mention my eyebrows.
People, especially gray-haired women, though not prematurely so, could not stop laughing with delight over how much they liked my new hair. Of course I appreciated their compliments, but I had a harder and harder time listening to them, thanking them, answering their questions about whether I would keep it short like this or grow it back (they hoped I'd keep it short). I wasn't exactly sure why these conversations were so hard on me until it all came out during a counseling session in a spew of angry tears. Having spent the winter sick and miserable and scared and fighting for my life, I felt like I was betraying my own self, dishonoring the truth of my full experience by passing the spring and now summer in such superficial conversation.
To be fair, it could be that every one of those women who commented on my cancer-makeover first inquired as to how I was doing. Many times I recall saying, "Right now? I'm doing okay," which I assume sounded to them like "I don't want to talk about the past." The almost inevitable response came back, "Well you look great." to which I, of course, said, "Thank you." And then, if we both stood there another second, they reiterated, or rephrased ("You really do look great" or "I really do like your hair like that. Are you going to keep it that way?") and we were off to the races.
All this would be fine if only I could figure out how to not give off that I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it vibe so that once in a while, I could feel supported rather than drained by these well-meaning interactions. The trick is that sometimes these conversations take place in the grocery store aisle when I've got just twenty minutes to fill the cart and get to my next appointment, or in moment when actually, I don't want to think about cancer. But also, I've learned from experience that many people don't want to or are not capable of listening to the hard core reality, won't know what to do or say if I tell them, "Well, the truth is, I feel like I have post-traumatic stress. I feel like I just came off the battlefield. And, by the way, I'm still in treatment every day and I'm still scared out of my mind when I think about it, and yesterday my beloved neighbor told me she just found out she has breast cancer too, and suddenly I can't stop eating." In fact, I imagine some of these innocent inquirers would shuffle nervously and respond like this: "Well you look great."
But maybe one or two would say nothing and just hug me while I weep.
Here's a hint: If you want to be a friend to someone going through cancer or even pregnancy or any other body-changing mortality-awareness-inducing life-altering physical experience, sure you can tell them they look great. But don't leave it at that. Assume that the reticence you may perceive as lack of interest in talking about the hard stuff is probably more of a self-protective knee-jerk expectation that you really don't want to hear. Figure out a way to acknowledge or inquire about the depth of experience beyond the surface. Whether or not your friend has the grace and presence to acknowledge it in the moment, whether or not he or she walks through that open door, they will appreciate your efforts. I promise you.
Can I get a witness?