Thursday, December 9, 2010

Two Kinds of Surprises

I was so proud of myself. I had just completed a year-long commitment to running to and from work every day. Yes, it was a pain packing the daily backpack with towel, shampoo and work clothes, hanging the sweaty running gear up to dry in the office locker room between runs, and making my 10 year old daughter go super slow so that we could commute home from school together - me on foot; she on two wheels. But I savored the efficiency of combining my 3 mile commute with my daily exercise needs and reveled in my independence from gas tank fill-ups, crowded buses and even flat bike tires and road grit. Freedom was truly mine on my own two feet, and I was as healthy as a 41-year old female could expect to be without super-extraordinary effort.

That is why it was such a huge surprise to suddenly find myself in a hospital bed with a thick, 8 inch scar from my navel to my public bone. The diagnosis was colon cancer; the surgery had been abrupt and extensive.

"We spent a long time just cleaning out the infection," Dr Imatani explained in a calm, reassuring tone. "The tumor perforated the colon and grew onto your left fallopian tube, ovary and a section of the transverse colon," he said. The doctor had taken all three. He left me with several staples, a few tubes jutting from my body and an ostomy.

What is an ostomy? I sure as heck had never heard of it. But there, on the lower left side of my abdomen, was a plastic bag stuck to my skin. Through the transparent film, I saw a red cylindrical protuberance about 1" long and 1" wide. It was my colon. The doctor had made an incision in my abdominal wall, extended the newly-severed end of the colon through the slot and stitched it securely to my skin. The children call it a 'button.' I call it my second asshole. What a joy.

The shock of learning that I had had cancer overshadowed any queasiness about the new, distasteful dimensions and operations of my body. That I still had a body - and a conscious that recognised the fact - was a relief. That I was the host of a disease known to torture and kill millions of people each year, however, was a heavy and difficult awakening.

My first thoughts were of my children and my potentially early demise: I would miss them terribly; they would bear the scars of losing a parent. I shed a few tears of sadness for all that I might not be there for. But, being a planner by nature, I began to do the math, vaguely through the drug-induced fog in my post-op hospital bed. The worst case scenario was a five year life expectancy. Could I get my children ready for life in five years? Could I finish the serious job of parenting that I had committed to, had eagerly signed up for, when Katie was born 12 years ago? I reckoned I could accelerate the parenting and get Katie launched into adulthood in that time frame. Georgia would miss out on a few crucial years of my influence and support, but she would be 15, and she was ever-resourceful. I began to feel better about all I could accomplish with whatever time limits the disease might constrain me with.

And I realized that I cannot be sad when I am dead; I cannot miss my family when I am dead. I could work with this idea of not being around forever, and chances were good that I would win many more than the minimal number of years after this scary diagnosis. I had things to do, goals to accomplish. I was not one to let a few malfunctioning cells get in my way.

After all, I was - and still am - extremely healthy. The mystery of how I got a cancerous tumor in my colon is something we will never know, and after a few days of wondering why, I stopped. There WAS no reason; there was nothing anyone did or didn't do to cause it. I had no control nor blame. Letting go of the need to find causality was the first big step down the long path of subduing any remaining cancer cells floating around in my bloodstream or my body's tendency to allow cancerous cells to survive inside of me. I eat well, exercise regularly and don't have any self-defeating addictions, like cigarettes or coffee. But everyone can improve, so I decided to do whatever I could to encourage only healthy cell growth and help my immune system recognise and destroy imperfect cells wherever they might be.

Getting healthier was a dilemma. What could I do differently? The pamphlets in the surgeon's office profiled a person less likely to develop cancer: it was me to a tee! The recommended diet included minimal red meat and alcohol; the recommended exercise regiment prescribed 30 minutes of cardio every day. I was already doing that (at least before the surgery!). So I looked elsewhere, outside my body. Where else could I make improvements to my health? The answer was clearly in my mind.

I did make a few changes to my diet, one-upping the recommendations, just in case. I cut out red meat altogether, as well as coffee and alcohol. But the bigger change-goal was in my attitude. I decided to rid myself of all resentment and anger, and any other pent-up emotional baggage that could be collecting, figuratively - and maybe even literally - in my gut. I met with a therapist to develop tools to help me find forgiveness, peace and acceptance for everyone in my life, including myself. I found a guided imagery recording and listened to it every day, trying to put into practice these ideas. I read everything I could get my hands on about cancer, healing and healthy relationships.

I don't have cancer. I had cancer. Now I have chemotherapy - it is finding and desiccating errant cancer cells that may or may not exist in my body. The drugs, with help from my visualization exercises, search out abnormal cells, crush them into a benign powder and sweep them out of my body through my ostomy...where they fall into a plastic bag...which I dump into the trash can outside. This is how I imagine it: twice a day, every day.

My six-month treatment is nearing its grand finale. I have seven weeks left, consisting of two infusions, 168 pills and one surgery. I am feeling great and in most respects have resumed my prior lifestyle, including running to and from work (albeit only once or twice a week). Many people would be surprised to know I am being treated for cancer. How could they? I am not sick. The biggest surprise of all: my experience with cancer has not chewed me up and spit me out a torn, sickly, emotionally exhausted wreck. The challenges have left me stronger, more clear-headed and actually happier.

Every day offers something to admire, from the odd beauty of a yellow-gray overcast sky to the uplifting tinkly laugh coming from a passing baby stroller. I have no fear of cancer. I am comfortable with the fact that everyone dies. Best of all, I now truly know that I have things to do, people to love and goals to accomplish, and I require a healthy, strong body to do this. And so I have.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Hairy Mess - Part I

Every weekday morning, I wake at 5 am, drag myself out of bed and put on my running shorts, athletic bra, t-shirt and tennis shoes. Then I strap on my pre-packed backpack with the day’s wardrobe neatly rolled into wrinkle-proof packages and prepare to head out the door on my daily 3-mile running commute downtown to my office job. But, before I go, there is one more thing I have to deal with – my hair.

To visualize the hair on my head, especially right after I get up, imagine (in black and white perhaps) a cotton candy machine into which someone has thrown a grocery bag full of twigs. Spun bark, anyone? The volume could pierce eardrums if we were talking about the other definition of the word. This hair is big. This hair is ornery. It made a very decent Hagrid costume one Halloween. Cavewoman and asylum patient are also successful costumes that capitalize on the thorny mess I wear on my head. It is long, bushy, brown, and out of control.

Hairstyle choices for running to work are many, but none are especially flattering. This does not matter because no-one sees me in the pre-dawn pitch blackness as I trumble by sleeping dogs and the neighbors’ dark windows. I can put it in a ponytail and tuck it down the back of my shirt, but that itches like crazy. If I leave it outside the shirt, it frequently tangles on the teeth of the backpack’s zipper and lashes me to my equipage in a very inconvenient way, which I realize only once I have arrived at the locked office door and try to hoist the backpack from my shoulders to retrieve my keycard. Clownish acrobatics ensue as I reach over my shoulders trying to unclamp the jaws of the angry backpack from the curious, creeping vines of my knotted, now shredded hair. My colleagues – the ones who arrive early enough – pass me with averted eyes, embarrassed to know this crazy, sweaty woman bending over backwards in a civil war with an unruly body part.

Another running hairstyle option is the braid. This is a safe partner with the backpack because it is too thick and contained to wedge itself in between zipper prongs. The raw, tender spot where the ocean-going-vessel-sized rope steadily slaps the back of my neck – once for every one of the 4,800 bobbing steps of my commute - can be salved and solved with a little TLC. But getting the snarled hair into the braid in the first place first thing in the morning takes as long as it does to run to work.

The simplicity of letting my hair float, untethered all around me as I run often tempts me. The result is two solid curtains of brown, ensconcing half of my face. Although this gratefully conceals my identity from early-morning dog-walkers and the security guard at my office building, it also acts as blinders, blocking my peripheral vision (and most of my axial vision too). This allows skulking bad guys and cracks in the sidewalk to remain unseen until it is too late, an unnecessary hazard my scarred knees probably resent. I value being able to see, especially when alone on a dark, lonely back street.

The solution that I use most often these days is the double clip. I bundle up what starts out as an angry cloud of wiry, errant hair, and, without the need for brushing, I twist it up into a single thick stalk, strong enough to support Jack, if not the Giant, which I then clip to the back of my head with two “jaws of life” hair-holding devices. They might just as easily be called the jaws of death, as they resemble fighting piranhas or tangled bear traps as they lock together on either side of the twisted trunk of hair. Luckily, they are made out of plastic. The double clip is a miraculous remedy for too much hair.

The double clip didn’t always work for me. In between the shorter, layered style I used to wear and the extra long, all one length anti-style I now host, the clips weren’t able to hold all of the various pieces out of my face at once. It is ironic looking back at how frustrating it was to struggle with the double clip in those days of more manageable hair, and now that my hair is certifiably unmanageable, they work like a dream. The one good thing (yes, there is only one good thing) about having long hair is the ability to put it all up at once. Medium length hair and layered cuts require multiple clips, elastic bands and other hair-securing devices to contain the many different lengths if you want to be able to play sports or see.

So, why, you ask, do I continue to battle the millions of strands of dead keratin that exude from my scalp? The answer I tell my officemates is “Locks of Love.” Of course, that is not the primary reason, but it is the easiest to explain. Ostensibly, I have been growing my hair out for three years so I can cut it all off and donate it to a charity that makes wigs for children with a disease that keeps them from growing their own hair. I set a goal of 14 inches of hair to grow and give, so that someone could benefit from this plethora of dead cells my body insists on producing. I always say, the rich should donate their money, the idle, their time, and the hirsute, their hair. I have too much hair, so why not give it to someone who needs it? But in reality, the goal is not to grow it, but to cut it, regardless of poor bald children or contrived beneficence on my part.

I want to cut my hair, not just short, but Sinead O’Connor short. Sigourney Weaver/Ellen Ripley short. GI Jane short.

A Hairy Mess - Part II

I want to cut my hair, not just short, but Sinead O’Connor short. Sigourney Weaver/Ellen Ripley short. GI Jane short.

This dramatic shift from bear-like hippy woman to dike-ish military heroine may seem strange, even suggest a mid-life crisis. It does to my mother. She said to me “I will feel bad every time I look at you if you cut your hair so short.” Not surprising words, since it was she who, as I prepared for my first job interview at age 15, advised me to “Wear your hair down; men like lots of hair.” Luckily, I am happily married. Pleasing men is not on my list of things to do, nor can my husband divorce me for lack of hair. He has expressed some reservations, but, after months of hearing my repetitive claim that the day is coming when the hair will disappear, he seems resigned to allow me to make my own decisions about my body – imagine that! If my soon-to-be peach-fuzzy – and probably lumpy - cranium bothers him, he can simply turn out the lights before making love. At least it will be easier finding my face. What is so sexy about a mouthful of hair anyway?

What I was least prepared for as I slowly made up my mind to cut my hair was the mystifying reaction of my two children. They have taken the news very hard. My 11 year old has been steeling herself for the moments when she will be forced to be seen with me, sure that she will be embarrassed beyond her worst fears. My youngest daughter tells me she will no longer look at me when my hair is gone. She went as far as to say that she wouldn’t love me anymore sans hair. As troubling as these responses have been, they propelled me even more ardently towards the buzz cut of my desires. Originally, I was planning on shaving my head bald, but have since compromised with my daughters and will shoot for a pair of shears set at ½ inch. It would be harder, it’s true, to pull off complete baldness in a professional business setting, so I am happy with my cop-out/settlement.

What is the attraction of a culturally ostracizing hairstyle, totally unbecoming by American standards, especially for an almost-over-the-hill mother and established professional businesswoman? Young people can be forgiven their eccentricities and impetuous foibles (just look at the number of stupid tattoos out there!), but why would I invite the deluge of strange looks and questions that will accost me on my first day back at work, looking like my 75 year old father-in-law? People will think I have started chemo or turned lesbian, or simply gone off my rocker. What is it about this haircut idea that makes it worth my family’s disdain, my co-workers’ curiosity, my friends concern for my sanity?

The source of my desire is two-fold. First of all, I have never cut my hair extremely short before. Since I was a child, I have had medium-length, chestnut-brown hair. When high school or college friends rebelled by dying their hair goth-black, or joined the chic-butch crowd by clipping it short in the back and letting a ragged top-knot flop over to one side, my staid, dependable auburn curls spoke out in a different way. Platinum blonde bobs and hennaed rattails partied at all the raves and Jenifer Aniston look-alikes in their California flat-ironed perfection paraded in front of urban sidewalk cafes, but my naturally pretty hair blew in the wind and said “confidence” and “consistency” with its unprocessed effortlessness. I have always found pride in liking myself just the way I am, or at least pretending to. So much that I didn’t need to change to match the trends of the day.

But being so consistently consistent can be a bit boring. I have reached 40, and the gray hairs have started to appear. As much as I stand by my typical hairstyle as a timeless statement on the beauty of naturalness, time is running out. If I am ever going to try something different, something as unfashionably adventurous as a super-short ‘high and tight’, it would be nice if it were brown, not gray. I don’t intend on dying my grey hair to look younger (why would I want to look younger? My husband is older than me, and I wouldn’t want him to feel left out.) So, perhaps, when my hair grows back, it might still retain some youthful chestnut color. Yes, “now or never” is what my body is telling me, so with my commitment of 14 inches for the little girls with Alopecia Areata, I might as well have a little fun and see the shape of my skull after all these years.

The second, and certainly most compelling reason to cut my hair in this ultra-manly style is strangely captured in the reactions, both realized and expected, to the act itself. I do not mean to say that I am an attention-seeker, glorying in the gasps and awkwardness of my coworkers and family. Rather, I am appalled and distraught that my own family could claim to stop loving me, my peers feel justified in treating me with suspicion, and strangers on the street judge me differently, all because of a little hair. If a man were to transform their looks as dramatically as I am planning on doing, it would be noteworthy for a day around the water cooler. But, I fear, a woman doing so might elicit a prolonged period of harsh criticism, cold treatment and doubts as to her sense and stability. Hair is one of the characteristics that differentiate women from men, at least in America. Without the obvious symbols of femaleness laid bare (sometimes literally, as in cleavage), society gets restive. “What next?” America says, “Will she try to get paid as much as a man too?” When our sexuality isn’t primped, plastered and sprayed with a billion dollars worth of capitalist product every year, will men stop recognizing women for the sexually receptive females that we are? Does our attractiveness rest only in the external pomp and camouflage that we put into our hair and paint onto our faces?

Sadly, the true origin, the seed for my plot to shear down one of my most obvious features of femininity and beauty, again came from my daughters. Three years ago, they set my calculating brain to ticking. Their hair was more beautiful than mine had ever been, with golden ringlets hanging around their faces like ripe, corkscrew fruits, ripe for the picking. Neither girl had successfully learned to brush her hair, and they were 6 and 8 years old at the time, well old enough to be able to take care of their own hair. But, like mine, it tended towards dreadlocks, and brushing it took an honest hour, once a week. So, one day I told them that they would learn how to brush their hair by the time they turned 8 and 10, or else I would make them cut it short. I was tired of slaving away through tears and handfuls of tangles ripped from their skulls. They would have to start brushing their hair daily, which would reduce the pain and frustration.

Thinking the task impossible, the girls focused on the very earnest threat to make them cut their hair to shoulder length or shorter. They both panicked. Through tears and wails of dread, they expressed the belief that their hair was all they had that made them special. Their hair was, like Sampson, all powerful, and they were nothing without it! I was shocked and disgusted by this perception of themselves, and yet I, along with my family and friends and every stranger who stopped us on the street to tell them what beautiful hair they had, were complicit in their brainwashing. By reminding them so often of their most obvious physical trait, we had somehow led them to believe that there were no other attributes worth mentioning. They identified themselves as the little girls with the beautiful hair, not the smart little girls who could run like the wind or do long division in their heads. The idea of being without their identifying locks was, to them, like getting a lobotomy – they would be so much less without them!

The false emphasis society - with me a participating member - puts on physical beauty, is unnatural, unkind, and unsustainable. Americans spend millions of dollars a year trying to look younger, hipper and cooler through manipulation of their natural god-given hair. They want to be someone else: someone straighter, someone curlier, someone blonder - not the young-at-heart, hip, cool, grey-haired person they actually are, and that saddens me. I started counting the number of people on airplanes who dyed their hair: hair dye being an easy way to identify people dissatisfied with how they look naturally. Every single woman (except myself) had an obvious hair color job, and some of the men too. In the elevator, 80% of the women dyed their hair. In the grocery store line, 70% of the women dyed their hair. Obviously, most American women are unhappy with their true selves.

Each morning when I arrive at the office, I go to the locker room to take a shower and dress for work. Usually when I arrive, an even earlier-rising regular, Bonnie, has already finished her shower. She prepares herself, like a Thanksgiving dinner, for the office as if her coworkers’ job is to consume her. I greet her with a brief “Hello”. She pulls up her control-top pantyhose over a black lacey thong that hides between her unnaturally bronze buttocks. She pushes her silicone enhanced breasts into a flowery push-up bra. I go about the business of undressing, showering, and dressing for work. By the time I have finished my routine, she has made it half way through the 45 minute process of flat ironing her hair and ‘putting on her face’. This consists of applying moisturizer, concealer, foundation, mascara, lipstick, eye shadow, and blush.

One morning, as I was about to leave, she pulled out the hairspray and said to me, “Sometimes I wish I were a man. Then I wouldn’t have to do all of this.”

Stunned silence delayed my response, but I remained polite, even as my anger swelled at her attitude of helpless victim of society. I saw her as an overzealous propagator of the unrealistic ideals women and girls face every day. It was she, and others like her, who relentlessly undermine my daughters’ fragile sense of self with an all-pervasive, contrived, beauty-from-a-bottle theology. Bonnie was like the aristocratic women of ancient China who folded their toes under to make their feet look smaller and more attractive, thus immobilizing themselves to a point where they could not run away even to save themselves. Bonnie’s expensive and time-consuming re-creation of beauty to meet the current definition per society’s standards, chained her to the locker room for 45 minutes every day. “Beauty is everything”, her arduous morning ritual seemed to say.

“You don’t have to do all of that,” I said, none too subtly, since I had just transformed from a sweaty, frizzle-headed ragamuffin to a presentable businessperson in 15 minutes. “Just decide not to care.”

Bonnie’s martyr attitude horrifies me. My daughters’ unnecessary insecurities horrify me. America’s treatment of women - indeed, women’s treatment of themselves - horrifies me. My haircut is my way of telling my girls, and Bonnie too, that the outward frosting is not important; that a persons’ true beauty comes from their personality, their expressions, the way they treat people.

I hope my family still finds me attractive without hair, but even if I am as ugly as they predict, I believe they will still recognize me as a caring, loving woman, just as worthy of respect as if I were drop dead gorgeous. I don’t care if I look bad without hair - that’s not the point. I believe in leading by example. This is my chance to demonstrate what giving up one’s vanity looks like, and I hope it doesn’t look as bad as they think it will.


I look at a single strand of my hair. This strand is more or less dark brown and wavy. I pulled it out of my head just now with about 1,500 others as I sat shredding split ends in a Herculean effort to simply get a brush through the briar patch. Although I condition and brush my hair every day, its tendency to grapple and hold on to itself never wanes. Nor does my drive to wrangle it into some semblance of order.

I imagine each thread has dozens of tiny fishhook barbs along the shaft that interlock with neighboring strands in a ritualistic clinging to the dead past. Perhaps, symbolically, I too have been hanging on to what used-to-be by retaining the same hairstyle I had in high school 22 years ago. If hair grows an average of ½ inch a year, this strand has been with me for 20 years. The 14 inches I am giving away represent 28 years of my life. I was 12 when many of these hairs burst forth from my scalp. I was a virgin, an adolescent, na├»ve and happy in my innocence. These hairs have seen Europe, Japan, almost all 50 of the states; high school, college, marriage, children.

Here at the freshly uprooted end, I see a firm cylinder of dark brown. I follow along the shaft and notice variations in density and color, like tree rings, representing the seasons. Summers, when I actually used to spend some time out doors, are colored a lighter copper. About halfway up, the hair changes weight, becomes unusually thin and wispy, as if my diet was malnutritious that year. Was that the year I went on a diet and lost 20 pounds, but ended up passing out so often that I went back to my weight-sustaining caloric intake? It’s a wonder the hair never broke in that spot. I spy a spot, there: 6 inches from the end. The follicle grows fat for a half inch or so. That appears to be 1998, when I was pregnant with my first daughter and the pre-natal vitamins kicked in, giving my hair extra gloss and thickness. And a few inches further along the shaft, I recognize my second pregnancy with my younger daughter.

This one hair, along with approximately 4 million others, will soon be sacrificed in the name of standing up to stereotypes and unrealistic expectations - mine as well as others’. In the name of giving what you can to those who need it; in the name of being oneself; I cut my hair.