Health, Uncategorized

Cancer In The Closet

I wrote this in response to a salon.com “open call” on the topic: spring cleaning.

What can’t you bring yourself to throw away?


It sits on the top shelf of my closet, inside a box, where I don’t have to look at it.

Most days I don’t even think about it.

I store breast cancer in my closet.

It comes in the form of a wig.

Not just any old wig,

a custom-made, human hair wig that fit perfectly over my smooth bald head

for nearly a year,

giving the false impression to the world

that I was in good health

with my mane of beautiful blonde hair.

When a friend was diagnosed

(the first in a series of six friends in four years since my diagnosis),

I offered it to her as a gift that she could keep, pass on, throw away, or burn for all I cared.

She gladly accepted it.

I was exuberant

to let it go, like excess weight falling off my body,

making me feel lithe, agile, and aloft.

Within days it showed up on my doorstep with a note.

“Sorry, it didn’t fit.”

I held it cautiously like a snake

I might pick up with a long, sturdy stick

to keep it far from me

until it could be tossed back into the woods

where it belonged.

I could give it to the American Cancer Society

or just stuff it in the trashcan for that matter.

I don’t have to keep it, but old wives tales run through my head like,

“If you get rid of it, you’ll need it.” Or, “If you keep it, you’ll never need it again.”

So I keep it, granting it a cancer-fighting power

that will protect me from ever having being caught up

in the maelstrom of a cancer war again.

I tried to give it away at least three times

but it kept coming back

with comments about it being too small.

Stupid small head anyway, I thought

as I marched upstairs to store it for the last time.

I climbed on the stool, reached for the designated floral hat box

on the top shelf of my closet,

and stuffed it back in there for permanent keeping.

Maybe that it kept coming back to me

was another sign that I needed to keep it, I told myself.

Whatever works, I thought as I walked back downstairs.

Storing a wig in my closet is a small price to pay for being cancer-free.

I know this is insane, but old wives tales or not,

I’m keeping that wig forever

because getting rid of it makes me feel as naked, vulnerable and afraid

as the day I looked into the mirror

and saw a bald woman reflected in the glass,

and realized it was me.

Family

Fools Rush In

Driving to our daughter’s lacrosse game last night, my husband and I talked about the striking improvements of her varsity team, and how fun it is for her to be a starter on a winning team for her senior year.

She is living her high school dream.

Sitting in the stands surrounded by other cheering parents, we proudly watched her storm down the field expertly managing the ball.  We stood, cheered and whistled as she flew toward the goal.

Then she collapsed.

“Get up!” I silently commanded.

She always gets up.

No movement.

“Get up!” I muttered nervously.

The refs blew the whistle, the stadium fell eerily silent.

All our red skirted girls stopped playing and knelt.  The blue skirted team followed their lead. Sports trainers rushed out to the field, and I saw her grab her knee and wince in pain. Then came the tears.

“No tears,” I prayed. Tears are not good.

As an aspiring sports medicine major, I imagined her using her newly acquired technical vocabulary to explain what happened.

I wanted to sprint down the bleachers, through the gate, and on the field, but I knew better.

Senior student athletes do not want their neurotic mothers doting over them in front of their coaches, friends, teammates, and a stadium full of spectators.

Finally, the trainers helped her stand. She put her arms around their shoulders, and  with their help, she hobbled to the sideline.

I stayed planted in the bleachers wondering whether I could calmly approach her for a status report, as the trainers gently unfolded her on the bench.

My husband sat stoically beside me with no urgent need to move.

 I couldn’t hush the nagging maternal voice nudging me to run to her. Finally,  I coolly stood up and walked as calmly as possible down to the fence behind her.

One of the trainers came over and said he thought she tore her ACL. I knew how quickly she translated that to “I’m out for the rest of the season.”

Then I understood the tears.  They were tears of disappointment, not pain.

She looked back at me, and said, “Mom, don’t worry.  I think I just panicked because I heard a pop and I knew that was bad. I’m really okay.”

When we got home, I helped her out of the car, into the house, and up the stairs to her room.

I cleared a path in her bedroom, scooping up all the shoes, backpacks, t-shirts, sweatpants and half-empty water bottles along the way.

“Can I get you something to eat?” I asked, wishing I could tuck her in bed, read her a bedtime story and chat until her eyes became droopy.

“No, but can you bring up my duffel bag and cell phone.”

I walked downstairs feeling the weight of her sadness but at the same time feeling a little guilty because it felt so good to be needed.

There is a delicate kind of dance between mothers and daughters that starts the minute they’re born, and we’re  always trying to keep up with the changing rhythms and foot patterns.

I  metaphorically spin her out on to the dance floor, and wait as discreetly as possible on the sidelines, hoping she’ll gracefully swing back soon. The older she gets, the longer she lingers out on the dance floor without me.

When she glances my way, I listen carefully to the music, notice her rhythm and body language, and when I feel like we’re swaying in sync again, I move in closer, reach out my hand and hope for her to reach back.  Then, we dance. I drink in her familiar scent and the softness of her skin.  And, for a moment, she is my baby girl again, and I savor it because I know it will vanish all too soon.

Mothering is tricky business. There is no science, no handbook, and no app that tells moms when to swoop in and when to stand back.  We just do the best we can moment to moment, and stand like wall flowers in the dance hall, waiting for our turn to dance with the belle of the ball, even if it comes in the form of a torn ACL, a shattered LAX season, and  a bucket of tears.