Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Bald in the Land of Covered Hair

I lost my left breast and my hair within six months of each other. Hasn’t grown back yet. You look under here, you’re in the land of no follicles. Zip. Same goes for this (indicating left breast). Pretty nifty, huh? It’s an insert. Just so that I don’t go around looking lopsided. Sort of like one of those “What’s wrong with this picture” things that shows up on the back of kids magazines in the dentist’s waiting room. What did someone forget to draw on this lady? It’s weird what cancer does to you. It’s even weirder what cancer does to you at twenty-eight. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk to you about my husband. I wanted to talk to you about my body and about the person that I thought I was and the person that I actually am. After that, I’ll give you my recipe for the only thing I could eat while I was in chemo.
I am a Frummy. I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I’ve been a Frummy my whole life. From day one. I think I was born with black stockings and an application to BJJ. That was a joke, by the way. I went to Ateret. But I really did do it all the way. Bais Yaakov, seminary, engaged at nineteen, married at twenty. I’m not saying I was brainwashed or anything. I really did want to do things this way and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. It’s just that I really could be a poster child if the National Organization or Frummies ever decides to start an advertising campaign.
Now you know the jokes they make about Frummies and clothes. That was me. I was machmir, not because I had to be, but because I wanted to be. I don’t want to tell you how many times I read Halichos Bas Yisroel. I had parts of it memorized way back before my kids killed my brain, but that’s neither here nor there. It just…it meant a lot to me. All joking aside, it still does. The funny thing is, though, that I spent so much time thinking about how I clothed my body and what my body said, but I never really thought about how I saw my body. I guess the first time I really thought about it was when I got engaged. I went to the Sheitel Macher with my mother to get my first wig and, wait a minute, let me back up here. I need to tell you that I’m a red head. Was a red head. Will be, if it decides to grow back. I also need to tell you that, when I was engaged, my family was going through some financial difficulties and it was more than my parents could handle to pay for my wedding. So I knew that my kallah stuff was going to be on the cheap side, which was fine. I was marrying the guy of my dreams. I was on cloud nine. But I came crashing down to earth and hit terra firma in the basement of a woman who sold overstocked sheitels that she shipped in from Boro Park. She looked at me when I came in and said, “Ooh honey, you’re a cinnamon auburn. They only make those in custom. I can special order one for you for three thousand.” My mother gave me this strangled look that said, “We can get you the sheitel, but only if we sell your youngest brother into slavery,” which is not what she said to the sheitel saleslady. Instead, she asked if we could have a look at the in-the-box stuff that was a little bit off my color. And for some reason, my throat started to close up and I felt like I needed to cry. So I asked the lady if she had a bathroom and I spent the next ten minutes sobbing on a stranger’s toilet with pipe sounds echoing around my head. I was standing by the sink, washing my eyes, when I caught a glimpse of my face in her bathroom mirror, and I started fingering my hair and wondering, why am I taking this so hard? At the time, I wrote it off as pre-wedding nerves, but I remember that moment, standing in front of that mirror in that little basement bathroom, touching my hair.
The second time I thought about the big it, was when I was seven months pregnant with my first child. I went out with a friend of mine to get some maternity clothing. There was some kind of big sale at Hecht’s and I picked out all of the extra-large skirts and hauled them into the dressing room. So I was in this dressing room at Hecht’s with a pile of the biggest skirts money could buy, and not a single one of these skirts made it down to my hips. They all kind of got…stuck in this region between the bottom of my bust and the top of my tummy. Now, I know that everyone looks ugly in a dressing room mirror. Dressing room mirrors are designed to make you look awful so that you’ll buy more clothes to make up for the fact that you’re hideous, but when I looked in the dressing room mirror, I saw, staring back at me, a misshapen beast of pregnancy with a stomach like an industrial sized mixing bowl, a rear end that was sticking out to maintain balance, and a skirt dangling just beneath where the bra ended. And suddenly, I was terrified. I was afraid of the image staring back at me under those harsh department store lights. I remembered the moment, that sick, sinking feeling of unreasoning terror in my stomach as I beheld the bloated figure in the misplaced skirt.
So that brings us to ten months ago when I found a lump in my left breast and my OBGYN confirmed that it was cancer. She gave me a number of a therapist that she referred to and told me to set up an appointment and then she told me, “It’s too early to say anything, but we’re probably going to need to look at the possibility of chemo.” And the first thing I said, first thing was, “Does that mean I’m going to lose my hair?” And she gave me this look. Just eyed my sheitel like, “does it matter?” And I laughed to show that I got the joke and, no, it didn’t really matter. But it mattered. It mattered so much. Then, a few weeks later, my OBGYN did another consultation with me and told me I would need a mastectomy.
“That means you’re taking off my breast, right?”
“All of it?”
She gave me another look. This one directed at my blouse, which was, I’m not afraid to admit, fairly shapeless. And, again, I laughed it off because it was kind of funny and she was trying to cheer me up. But I went home and I got into bed and cried. And that’s where my husband found me when he came home that evening.
“What happened?”
“My hair’s going to fall out. I’m, going to have to wear a wig.”
“But you already wear a wig.”
“It’s not the same.”
I started to sob.
“They’re taking away my hair. They’re taking away my breast. I’m not going to be a woman anymore.”
My husband put his hand on my cheek and turned my head so that I was looking at him.
“I don’t think it was your breasts and your hair that made you a woman in the first place.”
And at that moment, I remembered standing in that Sheitel macher’s bathroom crying over my wig. I remembered standing in that dressing room at Hecht’s, staring at my misshapen body, and I realized that it hadn’t been wedding nerves or hormonal imbalances. It was the fact that I saw my body as making me womanly. My red hair, that crowning glory on my head that I spent an hour a day straitening when I was in high school. It made me a girl. It made me know that I was a girl. That was why I wanted to cry as I looked through those boxed wigs that could never replicate the beauty of my hair. I was afraid that, the moment I put one of them on, I would cease to be feminine. I would lose that womanly identifier. The same thing with my fat body in the dressing room mirror and the prospect of losing my breast. Both identified me as a woman, a slim, femininely curved body, telling me that I was a woman, that I was something special and different. All this time, I’d been wearing the tznius clothing, but I hadn’t seen what was behind it, beyond self-respect and the decency of a bas yisroel. It was about identification. It was about seeing myself as a woman without needing to tie it all up in body parts, things that, in my case, would not stay. Things that can fade and disappear. Torah wanted me to identify myself as a woman by all of the things that were in my soul, all of the things that my husband saw as the things that made me female. Not the hair or the breasts or the body, the spirit. The binah yesaira. The neshama.
Do you know what my husband and I did that evening? We took out the electric shaver that I used to give him haircuts, and we shaved my hair off. Then he closed his eyes and kissed my naked scalp and told me I was the most beautiful woman he knew. Then, we went into the kitchen and had applesauce, which, as it turns out, was the only food I could eat during chemo. Take six apples, core them and boil them until they’re soft. Then run them through the food mill and stir them over a low flame, adding sugar, cinnamon, and cloves to taste. Then eat them with someone who loves you enough to kiss your naked scalp and remind you that he didn’t choose to spend the rest of his life with you because of the body parts you brought into the marriage.