A day before I left for a vacation cruise to Alaska, I looked in the mirror and spied, atop my clean, bald head — Hair! There wasn’t much of it, standing less than one-sixteenth of an inch tall. But when I ran my hand over my crown, I felt the delicious tickle of stubble.
"It’s back!" I cried to my friend Susan, who was lending me a gown for the cruise’s formal night. We jumped up and down the way we did in high school when the latest "he" called. I’ve been a cue ball since Day 12 of my first round of chemo. All my hair is gone, including eyebrows and lashes. The only really bad part, aside from looking like a Conehead, is the way drafts of cold air make my forehead feel glacial. In Alaska, I spent time looking for bald eagles, seeking to join their minyan.
Still, the stubble signified as nothing else could that Taxol and carboplatin were leaving my system, and four months of bravery before the IV drip were at an end.
And I had been brave — if by that you mean accepting the inevitable without flinching. Brave and grateful, for the many lucky breaks of getting cancer in the 21st century, where we at least have a fighting chance of extra time. Yet my happiness at the sight of these tiny fractions of colorless cilia revealed a sullen truth: I hate wearing my wigs. They’re beautiful, probably nicer than my real hair. But they itch. And they make me feel anxious and schizophrenic, like the Cameron Diaz character in "Shrek," conventionally lovely only until sundown.
And I’m not so happy being bald, however lovely people find the shape of my skull.
The last time I wrote about hair and the cancer patient, I quoted two Hebrew definitions of female beauty, "yofi" and "chayn."
"Yofi" was my wig, conventionally pretty, phony and safe. "Chayn," the more internal attractiveness meaning "finding favor," was my bare head, either bald or wearing the baseball cap, naked but true. As I entered the world of chemotherapy, I wondered which would it be: wig or bald. But life is not either/or; it’s more complex that that.
For now, I had turned a corner. After chemo, I wanted my self back, not just my old pre-cancer self, but the new self that had grown and changed by circumstance. How to reconstitute this self post-chemo was the spiritual dilemma.
Aviva Zornberg, writing in "The Beginning of Desire," says that the biblical Joseph’s problem in reuniting with his brothers was to "remember" himself. They had ripped up his coat of many colors and sold him into slavery, depriving him of his family and tradition. Now they had to "reassemble fragments of his repressed past."
If I am to live fully in the aftermath (and shadow) of cancer, this is my task too. I can’t deny that time and security have been ripped from me. But also, I must not let bitterness cast me into the pit of paralysis. I regarded this vacation as a test: Which of these selves — wig or bald or both — would I present on the ship?
Fast forward to the good ship Statendam on its first night heading north from Vancouver to Seward into the heart of fjord country.
I’m in the library room, wearing my wig and makeup and a new dress, before dinner. True, the wig is phony, but it has panache. Two good-looking guys are talking Israeli politics and immediately invite my opinion. Before you can say "Yasser Arafat is no friend of peace," we are all best buds.
Fast forward again, it’s after midnight. We’re walking around the Promenade deck, me and one of the two fast-talkers. By now, we’ve been talking for hours, like we’ve known each other forever. Beyond Israel, we have nothing in common except that we’re both bald. Except, of course, he doesn’t know that. And if I have my way, he never will.
It’s a big if. Post-chemo, I’m alive with sensations I haven’t known since before my diagnosis. One of them is fear: If he kisses me, will my wig fall off?
And just as I’m thinking this, bathed in starlight and the soothing hum of a ship under the moon, he makes his move.
I turn to him. I prop my elbows on his shoulders and hold onto my hair for dear life. He’s a strong guy, and now I increase my grip on my head.
He moves his hand over my cheek. He goes for my hair. My wig moves, a full half-inch.
He stops breathing. He moves my wig again, this time on purpose.
"Cancer?" he says.
What have I got to lose? I take off the wig. Will he see the mark of "chayn?"
"Very sexy," he says. "You know, your hair is growing back."