Last night, on sleep’s verge, a thought blew into my face flat and fast, like a door ripped off an old barn by a tornado and sent flying. A big flat thought-bang slammed into the space behind my closed eyes, I guess what you could call, in psyche terms, a post-traumatic stress flash-back-forward-whallop. I’d spent the afternoon searching through hundreds of old slides for possible images for my book, which is now “in production,” and I’d found some images of my younger self unclothed out in Prince William Sound, a two-breasted, long-haired younger self sprawled in muskegs or perched on a bunk or grinning behind the wheel of a boat. Always a nature-girl, for decades a food-purist and reformed binge-drinker, decades sober, decades drug-free, clear-skinned, sans make-up, decades breathing cool, clean Alaskan air, decades eating wild salmon and beach greens and so many wild blueberries during the late season, it’s a wonder I didn’t turn inside-out and purple from all the anti-oxidants. Of course, after the diagnosis, I asked why, asked my doctors if it could have been because of that or this (no nothing you did, they repeated), speculated with my sister about all the pesticides sprayed on the grapefields we worked in and lived next to; and the pesticides my father sprayed on his apple trees; and the pesticides sprayed on the cultivated strawberries we ate and ate without washing while picking them in the fields with my mother; and all the alcohol I downed in college before switching to mushrooms and pot (more pure I rationalized); and my father’s secondhand and my own-for-awhile firsthand cigarette smoke; and skinny-dipping in Lake Erie and eating its fish every Friday; and Three Mile Island upwind of my hometown; and all the drives through Lackawana, the now-abandoned steel city near Buffalo, my sister and I holding our noses and chanting “Lackawana P.U.” and staring out the car window at the row-houses grimed by smokestack spewage wondering how people lived there breathing always that stench; and all of the Latvian food, dairy and meat-heavy; and then packs and packs of sugarless gum trying to slim down from my Latvian childhood; and my chocolate addiction; and not having born a child; and the buried pain of childhood wounds. I considered pretty much everything. But never the kind of why that hit me out of nowhere last night, the why with a such a wail in it, like wind whistling through a slit between a cabin’s wall-logs. A why finding its way in, past my defenses. Why did I get breast cancer? Why me? And then the thought, the flat, hard shape of it end-over-ending away in another gust of wind. I practiced my new anti-insomnia technique of shoring up the logs around my sleep-mind, mind swept of worry-debris, a log cabin around my inner silence, and finally I fell asleep.
Besides, as the late Dorothy Matkin, my mother-in-law, would say, Y is a crooked letter. Why is a crooked question that leads you on a crooked trail that dead ends with a sign: Warning: Impenetrable brush ahead. Turn back. Dorothy got diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer late in life, and I can’t be sure, but I’d guess she spent little if any time or energy batting that crooked letter around in her mind like a badminton birdie. I doubt if she looked back and questioned the myriad ever-changing hair dyes of her life, or the perm chemicals, or the nail polish and lipstick shades, or the chilled wines, or the non-organic oranges and lemons growing in her back yard. She died not of cancer, but of old age, at home, in her nineties, surrounded by family. Even when her short-term memory went, even when her legs failed her, she never lost her sense of humor or her flair, her flash, her panache. I think of Dorothy forever red-headed and wearing midnight blue, turquoise or royal purple, wherever she is now. So let Dorothy be my segue back to hair, to the final chapter of my hair's cancer journey.
I've been, as I wrote before, a nature girl all my life, and not until I let those Latvian women have their chemical way with my hair did I ever use a fake color on my head. I did have a couple of the requisite perms as a teen, aiming for that Farrah Fawcett loft, and gave in to the unfortunate urge to use blue or lavender eyeshadow (from lids to brows, I'm afraid) in high school, but in college, I threw away all of my make-up when I heard that it was made of whales and stopped cutting my hair.
So it's pretty weird when I think about the fact that in the last two years, I've had more hair-does than in the previous 46 years combined. Maybe even out-hair-doing Dorothy Matkin.
Baldness during the 90+ degree Cape Cod summer months of chemo was refreshing but psychologically hard. Mostly, I covered my head with a scarf, and I started a head-covering collection, thanks to friends and family. (I gave most of them away after). I'm very happy that one friend, Tara, saved up a bunch of very cool, hip hats, but never got around to sending them until my hair grew back. Yeah! I could keep them, and wear them to this day.
I was pretty self-conscious of my bald head, and forced myself at times to strip off my head scarf when I swam. I literally was afraid of freaking little children out. But one hot day on the Cape, my sister and her kids and I paddled a nylon raft to the middle of a pond and I pulled off my scarf and we dove and did back-flips and rolls on and off for hours in the cool water, and it felt like liberation. I finally covered my head for fear of sunburn. I loved that my niece and nephews and even some of their friends grew used to bald auntie, didn't mind when I flung off a headscarf in the house in exasperation.
This photo, which I posted a while back, was taken by my brother in the Bronx Botanical Garden, one of my early childhood haunts. When you choose to wear a headscarf and not a wig as a cancer patient, you are indeed a marked woman. Especially when a lack of eyebrows or lashes erases any doubt about whether the scarf is simply a bohemian fashion statement. (I wore Indian headscarves in my twenties, but had a long ponytail trailing down my back). Sometimes, the mark comes in handy, like, say, when you get stopped by the cops for rolling through a stop sign. But mostly, you learn to wear invisible plexiglass walls around yourself when you go out in public. And sometimes someone taps on a wall to say "Hey, I went through it too, and I'm fine," and that's a good thing. But other times, it's an invitation for all kinds of bizarre reactions and comments from strangers, and those you hope will ping off the walls and land back in the tapper's face, but mostly, you just sputter some inane response, and then come up with excellent come-backs when it's too late.
And then it was fall, and then it was October, and then it was October 15, my last chemo infusion. And my friend Margaret flew to Boston and met me at the hospital, where I was in a hospital bed woozy from Benadryl and having a particularly messy blood draw. After hugging my infusion nurse Myrielle goodbye, and after a nap at the Beacon Inn, and after all the drug-dopiness wore off, to celebrate the end of chemo, Craig, Margaret and I went to dinner on Beacon Street, and then saw a Woody Allen movie in a vintage theatre, and then walked back to our cute room at the Beacon Inn and slept, and in the morning, Margaret bought me a boot. One black bad-ass boot. A book like a motorcycle mama would wear. And so I had to buy the other boot to match. And I walked down Beacon Street with Craig and Margaret feeling like I'd given cancer everything I had, the hardest kick inside me, and the boots would keep that kick alive. And they would take me somewhere else, somewhere new. Bad, black, ass-kicking fuck cancer boots.
On the drive back from Boston to my sister's house, we stopped at a breast cancer supply boutique. What else to call it? That's what it is, basically, a place where you buy bras with special pockets for prostheses, where you get fitted for said prostheses, where you buy special swimsuits, wigs, scarves, hats, and lymphadema sleeves. No, it's not like the Gap or J. Crew or Victoria's Secret. Most of the bras and swimsuits are downright ugly. I'll just say it. They mostly suck. Maximum coverage. Like a lingerie shop for Puritans. But we did our best, stocked up, and while I waited for my prosthesis to get boxed up, Margaret led me into a tiny room with mirrors, told me to sit down and said, "Eva, just try this on for me, please, just for fun." And because Margaret has said this to me countless times in clothing stores, holding up some piece of clothing in a color or style I'd never choose for myself, and because she's always been right, I let work the auburn wig onto my head, and I stared at myself in the mirror and started laughing in this weird way that sounded like I was winded. Maybe it's what they call guffawing, but it kind of had sobs in it, because suddenly, for the first time in six months, I looked almost normal. I laugh-sobbed and stared at myself in disbelief. And when Craig saw me he said, "Damn, I'm going to BUY that for you," and he did, and then we drove to the nearest Wall-Mart and bought fish-net stockings, and when I got back to Cape Cod wearing my regalia, and walked up to my sister, at first she actually didn't recognize me. She really did. She thought I was some friend of Margaret's. And then my nephew Quinn's eyes got wide and this huge smile slowly spread across his face and he said, "Auntie Eve, you look awesome." And I gave the ground a little kick with the toe of my boot.
One of my favorite wig-era encounters was at a little cafe I used to go to every time I visited my energy healers. It's in a tiny place called Marstens Mills, and you can actually imagine there being a waterwheel somewhere, and an actual mill, and men in hemp clothing hauling sacks of freshly milled flour over their shoulders. It's just a winding road through dense forests and suddenly a few business establishments, one of which is the cafe and one of which is a gift shop where I found several of my head scarves. I had a few minutes to kill before my energy healer session, and so I went in and ordered my favorite tea flavor and a corn muffin, and the woman behind the counter, who'd served me many times over the head-scarf months, said, in the most off-hand manner, quietly, "I love your hair. You look great." And then she told me that she'd admired me from afar, my courage in wearing a scarf, she said, not wearing a wig all through treatment. She told me she'd had very early breast cancer herself, hadn't had chemo, but she said "I don't think I could have done it, worn a scarf like that." Besides that bravery on my part had nothing to do with it, I loved that she never said a word for all those months. That she made me feel like I was just another customer while I was at my sickest. That she held her comments and thoughts close to her own chest, until I was on my way to recovery, until it was the right time. And it was the right time. She knew I'd made it through the fire, and she was there to say hello on the other side.
During radiation, a white infantile fluff began to grow on my head. So I kept wearing scarves or the wig, depending on my mood of the day, or going bear-headed at home. And then it was over. On the day of my last radiation zap, Craig and I left the Cape and headed for Hawaii to recover the rest of the way. There, I retired my wig for good. I kept the scarf on for another month, as the white infantile fluff grew, turned grayer, and eventually turned into something more like hair. Here I am with some dear Alaskan friends who visited during that transition time.
Those were the days of still going to bed by eight every night, of napping in the afternoons, of bone-weariness and tears and fits and sudden terrors and rages and a slow, slow recovery mimicked by the slow, slow growth of my hair. Before returning to Homer, not wanting to hit town after a year away with a completely gray-white head, I went to a salon for a color job. The guy said it was semi-permanent, semi-natural, but it was not. He lied through his teeth. I was a Latvian brassy red-head again. Here I am in Prince William Sound on my 48th birthday:
In that place, Prince William Sound, love of my life, I stuck my fingers deep into the spongey wet earth. I let rain soak my hair and saturate my skin and run down my face. I did yoga on a black sand beach on my birthday, 48 sun salutations, alone while the tide licked in. I lay face down on alpine bluff-tops. I lifted my shirt and pressed my bare chest into the muskeg, into sphagnum moss, which was used as antiseptic bandage material during long-ago wars, I don't remember which. I collected water in little blue bottles to send to my friend Lauren, going through a hot Cape Cod summer of chemotherapy. I gathered all of the broken and scattered and crooked pieces of myself. I crawled back into my animal body. In my animal body, I knelt to drink, time and again, from streams, replacing every cell within. Like someone rebuilding a crude hut blown down by a big wind. I grew a new skin, and a new pelt. This is where I go when the whys come careening by in the night. I rebuild my hut, crooked stick by crooked stick, one for every crooked letter I discard.