This is me. This is the me you’ll see shopping for dishwashing detergent or walking to the curb when the kindergarten school bus pulls up or standing at a lectern at the university. This is a woman with a bag of tricks, a bag on wheels, no less, a bag that thumps over the concrete seams of campus with purpose. A snack-sized baggie with Motrin tucked inside. A bottle of water. Peanuts. A makeup compact. A bottle of hand-sanitizer. Determination. This woman puts her hand on top of her head in a good Texas gust because she’s afraid it will all blow away. This is me when the girls want to trace hopscotch patterns on the sidewalks, when everyone’s smiling, when the sun breaks over the eaves and the bare tree limbs blur into the blue sky.
On Day 96 I ask Hannah, who’s been snapping photos of jars of Nutella and her foot on a skateboard and our dog curled into herself on a sofa pillow, if she might want to take some pictures of me. “The real me,” I tell her, and she squints for a minute.
“With your bald head, you mean?” she wants to know. “Sure.”
She’s come a long way. The day I shaved my head we’d asked if she wanted to record the video, thinking it would appeal to her artsy ambitions, thinking it was her way in. But before she even got started, she tossed the phone at me and ran out crying.
“Can we talk about why you’re upset?” I asked, my chin to my shoulder so my voice would travel down the hall after her. I was sitting on a black folding chair in my bathroom. Joe was untangling the cord to the hair clippers.
“I’m upset because I don’t know how to work your stupid phone!” she called back.
And while she helped me pick out the wig she preferred I wear, it seemed to be spun from the devils gold or something. She would give it looks, the wig, the one-eye-squint you master the day you turn twelve. And at a family Christmas party, right after my second treatment, we leaned together in my mother’s kitchen, my head tipped to touch hers, and she reared back.
“It’s going to fall on me!” she said with the squint and the lip snarl.
“No it’s not,” I said.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Take it off and show them how bald you are. See if they like it.”
I cried all the way home. And when I cried, she cried. She cried like she might have when she was ten or six or four. She cried like the little girl I knew her to be. We decided that she was really mad at cancer. Not me. Not the wig. But while she sits with the Nikon poised, we start with the wig. Then, the hat.
I love my hats. I have one my mom knitted for me. The hat of many colors, she calls it. Before she brought it over, she’d sent me a picture of herself modeling it. Reds and blues and purples. A lip of knit yarn rolling back from her thin eyebrows, arched exactly like mine. I sat forward with my laptop on my knees, looking into the face of my own mom, living with Hepatitis C, months after a cancerous tumor was removed from her liver. But I don’t see her struggling. She is only the woman who wears the hat she made for cold nights, the woman who brings a pot of soup for us every chemo Friday, the woman who climbs the narrow steps of a tree house in her backyard to help Firecracker dust the corners. All I see is mom. I took a picture in the knit hat and sent one back to her.
This hat, though, is my Ralph Kramden hat, and I arrange the brim before Hannah snaps a series of pictures.
Hannah asks if I’m ready for a bald-head shot. “Sure,” I say, dropping the hat to slouch beside the leg of the upholstered chair. No filters, we agree. Everyone should see what a bald woman looks like, straight-shouldered in the front room windows. Otherwise, this woman can usually be found in the corners of the house, the bathroom with the door locked, the walk-in closet where the wig stand waits.
Joe slipped past a gap in our door once when I was changing from the wig to the Kramden hat.
“Stop!” I said. “I don’t want you to see just how bald I am now.”
“I already know,” he said and kept walking.
I have another hat I wear on nights that aren’t that cold. A sort of thin, slouchy cotton turban that rearranges itself across whatever snagging stubble I have left. I wake from a Dickens book everyday in this hat. But here I am, without the security of any hat at all.
Remember just a few weeks ago when I was worried Hannah would remember the “saddest moments” between us? That surely everything through her perspective as a kid of a mom with cancer was gloomy? When I say between camera clicks, “I look like a tough sci-fi chick,” she says, “Yeah you do.”
Whatever it was she’d had to accept about the way treating cancer was changing me, she’s made it through.
Then we decide people should see that woman, the woman on chemo.
This is me. This is the me who has lost half of her eyelashes, who’s brows have thinned. I feel wonderful as I sit for this picture, but I know despite how I feel, despite the fact that I’ve walked a mile and a half today and made tabouli lettuce wraps and wrote this blog, I look sick. Almost eight weeks of chemotherapy has made my skin tone change to a pallid gray, darkened circles under my eyes, dried out my lips, creased new wrinkles in my chin, turned my nail beds purple. I spend a lot of time covering these chemo signs so I don’t look sick, so no one worries when they shouldn’t.
Last week when I met with my surgeon to plan a lumpectomy in April, he asked how I felt, that I looked like I felt great. The woman in the wig and makeup went to this appointment. “Oh, I can’t complain!” I said, which he thought was the funniest thing he’d ever heard a cancer patient say. But I can’t. I’m doing okay. I promise you.
Hannah checks the pictures on the Nikon’s display screen.
“It’s alright if it looks bad,” I say. “That’s the point. To show how bad I look.”
“You could never look bad,” she says.
We’ve both come such a long way.