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Lions Roar : November 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2011 64 Prior to meeting with Dr. M, I had gone up to the mezzanine level of my hotel lobby to Renee’s wig store. Head firmly ensconced in my purple, cotton beanie, it took me awhile to pluck up the courage to ask the owner if I could try on some wigs. “Are you losing it or growing it back in?” she asked when I removed my hat. “Losing it,” I said. “It’s chemo. I go in for my second treatment tomorrow.” She pulled a sad face. I’m only twenty-three and perhaps I look younger, although in Rochester, Min- nesota, adjacent to the Mayo Clinic, I’m sure they see people far worse off than little old me. But still. You can’t close off your heart. We tried on wigs of all sorts. Short ones, long ones, red, blond, brown, black, and (just before the purple) a fetching pink pixie with a black forelock. I am by nature a dark brunette, but in the pit of my soul I still cherished a nine-year-old’s yen to be a vibrant redhead with green eyes the color of emer- alds, just like Felicity from the American Girls, not to mention the sword-wielding, dragon-fighting, butt- kicking Aerin and Alanna who filled my childhood bookshelves. And for a moment, sitting in front of that oval mirror in the back of the shop, surrounded by many-colored wigs mounted on Styrofoam heads, I imagined that by changing my hair I could change the essence of who I was. But whatever hair I wore, I was still me. Same small pixie face. Same freckles. Same hazel eyes. It was the eyebrows and lashes and even nose hairs that I would lose in the next three months, so that my face would become too smooth, un-furred. That’s what I was afraid of on that day in October in Rochester. I was afraid of what I might become, of what chemo would turn me into. I couldn’t bear the thought of becoming a stranger to myself. That’s why I was trying on wigs, of course—in case I became too self-conscious of my baldness, in case I needed to put on another person’s hair in order to see myself in the mirror. My hair had only begun to fall out the week before. When Renee brought in the purple wig, I knew that was the one. Acrylic and natty and spilling into my eyes, hot and itchy and lavender, it said, I am yours. And for $28, I would take it. I might be wor- ried about my appearance, but, by God, I wanted to make people laugh. You’ve got to laugh. Chemo is no laughing matter. Besides, Renee could always mail me one of the other, nicer, “realer” wigs for $300 if I decided to pretend I had real hair. I was always dressing up as a child, always pretending to be someone else. Both the purple wig and the realer wigs were pure dress-up, but at least when I wore the purple wig I didn’t feel like a shabby substitute for myself. No, in the purple wig, I felt like I was going to some eurotrash party where I would sip a cocktail, dance like a whirli- gig, and pretend to be full of ennui until I could no longer maintain the façade. After all, my oncology nurses insisted on calling my chemo drugs a “cock- tail.” Taxol and carboplatin are right up there with Grey Goose and Tanqueray, right? Yeah, right. On the way home, I called Dad to tell him the good news: I’d seen Dr. M and gone shopping! “You spent twenty-eight dollars on a purple wig?” he said. “Hell yes,” I said. “And I’m going to wear it to chemo tomorrow.” W E—MOM AND I—returned home to Manitowish just in time for me to swallow my drugs in preparation for the next day’s chemo. We drove home in the dark, but we knew the route the way some people know the lines on their faces. We knew how the tall glass and brick buildings of Rochester yield to farmland, and farmland to the grand bluffs along the Mississippi, and the bluffs and their winding roads to the dull green of central Wisconsin. In the darkness, our very blood told us we were passing the boulders left by ice-age glaciers, the soft wetlands entangled with alder and hazel, and the low sleepy rivers that slide oxbow by oxbow inexorably toward the south. How many times have I driven across fields and farms, forests and rivers with my mother? I’m always glad to be home, but never more so than in these last months. It isn’t just this place that spells home for me; it is the people—my parents—my mother. On that ter- rifying day in May, when I’d passed out on the cold tiles of the dormitory bathroom at my small liberal arts col- lege, it was Mom’s voice that provided my anchor. It was her surety, her calm that assured me I would not die on the spot. “I’m calling security,” she told me after I wavered my way back to bed. My roommate was gone, the halls eerily empty at 9:30 on that Monday morning. I held my cellphone hot against my ear as if it could give me life—it was, after all, my tie to my parents who had given life to me in the first place. Security came, with one of the deans. They took