Most days you look in the mirror and you see the usual. That face that has been yours all your life, which of course always stares right back, the same one everyone else sees when they look at you. You notice the symmetry, something you’ve always taken for granted, and these days you notice the remnants life has left behind — little scars, dark spots, once fine lines, today deeper and cracked open. Isn’t that where they say the light gets in?
In my 20s heading out to bars to see friends or on dates, I’d catch a glimpse of myself before leaving the apartment. The low light was flattering. My hair, bright blonde, shiny and falling softly in a sheet of rain, that familiar corn silk shower draping my neck, my skin clean and (mostly) clear, slightly dressed up for the evening, a pink lip, lined eye, a touch of mascara. I didn’t need foundation and I let my skin breathe, let the Friday fun draw out its radiance, which even the toughest work week couldn’t conceal. A cheek color seemed redundant since I tended to blush easily, always a great source of embarrassment. It was during that last glimpse heading out the door where I’d catch myself, and smile a little, bathed in that familiar light, as if I’d adjusted the rheostat just right, stopping once I landed on me. Too much turning that dial and I would have stopped short or else blown right past her, forced to wade through that sea of vhs static once again before settling on the right channel.
Years passed bringing marriage and then children, and the mirror glances, largely reduced to mornings rushing out the door and evenings winding down at the bathroom sink, lessened. The grooming, teeth brushing, hair drying, and mostly, back then, thinking about flossing.
The bathroom mirror is put away, protected from our house renovation, so check-in opportunities are few and far between, save for passing the hall armoire mirror and the one in the kitchen. I don’t need to look so much anymore. We’re in a pandemic, the social dialed up dress-up moments are on hold, as are even the simplest small gatherings set with home as the backdrop.
Last week, I got a haircut. The bald areas chemo brought had started filing in, and I needed a compromise between my longer hair and new sprouts on top, now bending slightly from gravity. I’ve been desperately wanting to recognize myself again, so voluntarily signing up to lose more hair was nerve-wracking. The mirror glances this last year have been humbling – the ghostly pasty pallor, the 2-D moon face with scant dirty blonde smudges where eyebrows used to be, the thinning and balding crown (rhymes with clown) and the stunned reflection which could only respond back with a slightly sad deer-in-headlights gaze. However, time has brought my color back, eyebrows too and that third dimension I’ve been missing. I had a lot banking on this cut. With the last of the sun-kissed strands on the floor and the wiry bendy hair staking claim to my scalp, I worried this new external version of me would reveal what I’ve been desperately trying to hide, the crazy chemo roller coaster I’ve been on, the cancer. Yes, it messed up my hair but I’m increasingly seeing bits of myself that I recognize. There is great comfort in that.
Julian, the stylist, is steady, unflappable and encouraging. He knew he could help me and scheduled our time for early morning so it would be just the two of us. Extremely nearsighted with my glasses off and unable to see changes underway, I sat still in my chair, trusting him completely, resigned to just being there. We chatted about his terrific playlist, his adorable toddler and of course the election. Julian and I voted the same way.
That simple cut made so much sense. I felt pretty again, feminine, healthy. It gave me back a piece of myself. The little girl, the middle-aged woman, the breast cancer survivor, all of me. I saw a plan ahead, I saw hope and I saw that I had to show up, ask for what I wanted, and then put my trust in the process, in the person in charge.
When you get a cancer diagnosis you can’t simply dust your hands off confidently and exhale, “Phew, glad that’s over.” Instead you solider on, regularly checking in with doctors, with your diet, your exercise, stress levels, hoping to tip the balance, change up the environment on your insides, and erect a flashing billboard shouting a resounding there’s no room in the inn from the rooftops should a malignant passerby come knocking.
Weeks ago, I noticed a small round red spot on my leg, which my paranoid brain knew was surely a skin cancer red flag. I’d been coming and going doing this and that, always rushing, and very likely bumping into things as I moved about my days. Calm and assuring, Joe leaned in, studied it and proclaimed it was very likely a bruise with blood under the surface. Joe was right.
Last week Joe made me a snack, an empanada we bought at a local farmer’s market, heated up in the toaster oven. Joe likes his coffee strong, his toast dark and extra crunchy, his food highly peppered, and as it turns out, his empanadas absurdly hot. Starving, I dove in, immediately burning my mouth — the roof, the sides, my gums, the whole shebang – yet still finishing the delicious pastry as fast as I could. Days later, long after that snack, I felt something with my tongue inside my left check, a raised Rhodesian Ridgeback line extending diagonally. I knew I had developed some god-awful oral disease and despite all the cancer treatments I’d weathered, this was some new thing I’d now have to attack. I decided to consult with Joe again who inspected the inside of my check, thought for a minute and reminded me I’d burned my mouth days earlier, and this was what that was. Thank you, Joe. Crisis averted again. E x h a l e.
This past election week left me with a splinter embedded under my fingernail. Not sure what got in there, but no, it wasn’t a ballot chad. It hurts like hell and the skin surrounding it has swollen, gotten firm and red, and literally slammed shut any hope of my tweezers gaining access to slide between my nail and skin, pinch it and drag it the hell out of there. Like a self-cleaning oven that locks itself shut so it can get on uninterrupted with the painstaking work of blasting the oven’s insides so the grime will peel off the sides, top and bottom, the racks too, and only once it’s done will the door lock release and let you back inside.
Describing the 45th POTUS recently, a neighbor remarked, “He is truly a cancer.” I of course cringe hearing that word especially because MY cancer, MY tumor, the one that is GONE, scored a whopping 45 on its oncotype test (not the worst, but not nothing either), the test that predicts the likelihood of that unwanted second term happening. All this to say, just like POTUS, this invader had a healthy dose of making plans to come back. But I retaliated with similarly heavy chemo and radiation artillery, my own customized insurance plan. And our voters retaliated at the polls. Because our nation’s 45 need not ever come back, it was that much more important that my own not too. He is a cancer of the fast spreading and making plans to return variety. But he was stopped and will continue to be.
We are beginning to wake up, warm up, thaw and put salve on our burns; we are beginning to see ourselves once again. It’s been the longest of hauls, exhausting, scary, but there is a light ahead. The noise, the static, the searching for a channel is over. Let the healing begin in each and every one of us.