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Would You Like Some Cheese With That Whine?

I was eight years old, visiting my grandma, who answered the door with several band aid strips strategically placed on her face. I thought that she had been terribly injured until she smiled broadly and welcomed me inside. My curiosity was piqued, of course, but since I had been taught to respect my elders, I waited for what I thought was an appropriate amount of time before I asked the obvious question.

“It is helping me get rid of wrinkles,” she simply said, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, that the secret to defying gravity rested in that red, white, and blue box.

My young brain couldn’t figure out how it did so, but I took her at her word. And to this day, I can’t look at a box of bandages without wondering if I should give it a try, especially now since the combination of age and sun and chemo have had their way with me.

Momma always watched her weight, careful not to “let herself go” as she liked to call it. Most of the female members of my family colored their hair and had perfected the application of natural-looking makeup. Southern women tend to be schooled in the womanly art of good grooming from the time they are little girls. It is part of our DNA, and attempting to look as attractive as possible is as natural to us as breathing. So is it any wonder, then, that I am a little upset that cancer has completely changed the way I see myself?

Yeah, I am so vain, I probably think this blog is about me. It is. (My apologies to Carly Simon. and my readers. This is pretty self-indulgent, and I know it.)

It has been two months since I had my last dose of chemo poison. That’s sixty days. And by now, I had fully expected to look in the mirror and recognize the person whose image is reflected back at me. I figured that with the steroids out of my system, the weight would have magically fallen off my body, and I would have a grand time rediscovering the treasures in my closet. Nothing makes you feel worse than not being able to squeeze into your favorite jeans. That’s one of those universal truths. And by the way, it's why Wonder Woman wears tights.

But the needle on the scale hasn’t budged one bit, in spite of better eating habits and more exercise than when I was in treatment. Getting dressed to go anywhere is a challenge, as the casualties mount on my bed, each item tossed aside and rejected. I fully expected to be done with this by now, the bloat subsiding and my former self emerging like those butterflies I love so much. It hasn’t happened.

But that’s not all. Except for the three wiry whiskers on my chin, I am still completely hairless. My bald head glistens in the light, and with the cooler fall temperatures setting in, I find myself shivering as I scramble for a soft cap to wear. I have an assortment of wigs, of course, and they have helped me look and feel less like a cancer patient, but hanging around the house in a wig seems silly to me, not to mention downright uncomfortable, so I get to see more of my baldness than I would like. And then, there is the lack of brows and lashes. My morning routine begins with a careful inspection of my eyes and the expectation that hair has miraculously started to grow during the night. I try not to be disappointed as I draw on my features, hoping to look less like a cartoon character and more like myself.

Compared to last time, I am behind schedule with this. It could be the chemo pill, I am told. I admit to being terribly impatient. But then, I had the grand epiphany that worrying about growing hair beats worrying about dying. If I end up permanently bald, it is the price I will have paid for this time of recovery. I hope that I can embrace the possibility of an altered appearance in exchange for being where I currently am. Perception always changes with experience, right?

My husband calls me Ned (for “no evidence of disease”). It conveniently rhymes with bald head and said, thread, bed, ahead…Well, you get the point. I am reminded that it also couples with dead, and I am most certainly alive. Thank God. Perhaps worrying about how I look is simply a reminder that I am human that I am responsive to life again, and that I am still attached to this shell which houses my soul.

In spite of my shallow obsessions, I try to remember to be grateful, whispering prayers of thanksgiving throughout the day. Truly, I am blessed to be in remission once more. But if you know of any good potions for hair growth, pass them along. I am always optimistic about tomorrow. It is a good way to live.

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