Radiation is a weird animal. Easier, by far, then chemo. Mysterious and invisible, the x-rays penetrate my right breast quadrant every day, while I lay very still and with my arm above my head to ensure correct line up as the precision machine is moving around me, carefully avoiding, so we hope, exposure and damage to any of my vital organs.
With the business of Monday through Friday treatment, and tagging on restorative Yoga, Qi Gong and Pilates classes, my life once again has a bit of a regular schedule. Outwardly, things feel like they are beginning to resemble a somewhat “normal” rhythm. Even if the majority of my daily appointments and chores are medical, there is once again a distinction between weekdays and weekends.
My hair takes its sweet time to cover my head once again, regardless of how ready I am for it. Every day my hand goes over my bald head, longing for signs of stubble, or growth. Will it really come back? It reminds me of the end of winter, when you know that spring is in the air, but the land still looks barren and desolate all the same. Until that special day, when the seeds finally push through the surface and into the light of day, for all to see. Plain and clear: life is coming back. And so it is with my hair. One fine morning a hue of gray on the sides of my head is reflected back to me from my bathroom mirror. So slight, the difference, I wonder if the morning light is just playing tricks on me. But slowly and surely, over the next few weeks, hair begins indeed to once again populate the various areas of my head, growing in all sorts of different tones and oddly shaped patches, soft like the first grass to cover the gray hillsides after the snow melt. It takes quite a bit of time until the first half inch length covers most of my head.
And for how long I have waited and hoped for it, it takes me by surprise when I decide to shave it off once more. I buzz it down to a bare sand paper stubble and love it! There is something magical about feeling the prickliness of my scalp – as supposed to the soft baldness under the chemo. It feels powerful to choose my own bareness now, instead of being simply subject to it, as I was during the chemo. It is my decision now, to go without, to carry my nakedness proudly, to stay honest and open at this time of great vulnerability for the many blessings that this surrender has called forth. To walk from here on out, into this new life that is just beginning.
Choosing to stay visible as a cancer initiate, many up close and personal encounters with other human beings and their stories of love, healing and dying find their way to me. Wherever I go now, in my nakedness I am invited to look under the skirt of our shared humanness, into the heart of the true nature of our interconnectedness. And I find myself continuously amazed at the willingness of those touched by cancer to share their story, reach out and connect across race, age or class barriers, with an intimacy that is unthinkable in the ’normal’ world.
Everything is personal now. Before my eyes, a world that has so often felt cold and un-relational has opened up to me now to share its deepest secrets, simply because I belong to this special “cancer club” that none of us wanted to belong to in the first place. Like the woman rounding the corner in the Safeway aisle, who breaks out in this wide smile when she sees me, and calls out: “Good for you! You wear your head high! I never wore any of them damn wigs either, God they itch like crazy!” Survivor of 17 years. Wow! Make my day. May I get to pay it forward one fine day and make someone else laugh, some 17 years down the road… Or the cashier at Trader Joe’s who tells me his mom just started treatment, and he’s afraid how she’s going to cope because she lives alone and he’s not close. Or the fine old man who stops me at a department store, between the checkout stand and the special sales counter, putting his hand lightly on my shoulder and gently saying “I wish you well”. His eyes full of tears, it turns out that his wife of 50 years has passed away only a few weeks earlier after a long battle with breast cancer and now his youngest daughter had just been diagnosed. Damn! And there we are, in a long, intimate and tearful hug, two complete strangers, in the middle of Target, in a territory that words just can’t reach, somehow managing to celebrate the blessing of love, even if it opens us up to the worst losses possible.
In my better moments, I feel such lightness, grace and gratitude for this new life. By truly claiming my belonging in this threshold life, between birth and death, my life has become an offering for all beings. For now, cropping my hair close to the scalp helps me keep remembering. It keeps me honest. I am sure that this too will shift one day. The only constant is change. There is nothing to hang on to. All I know is that for now, it’s too early to go back to looking ‘normal’. Instead, I am taking the liberty to turn into what is truly true for me, moment by moment, edgy and outrageous as that may be. Normal is overrated anyway.
Originally written in March, 2012, edited in Nov 2014