A fight with Josh, my bald-head, and being in love

Josh and I had one of our rare “fights” a couple of weeks ago. “Fights” in quotes because I’m not sure we can really call it a fight. Our “fights” tend to be more of a brief turning away from the other: someone snaps, the other person snaps back or storms off, and usually within the hour, there’s an apology, an explanation of what was really going on beneath the snap, a hug, a commitment to be more this or less that with one another, a mutual acknowledgement of how much we love each other and of how very lucky we are to have what we have—including a relationship that is filled with passion but not much turbulence.

When we got married 10 years ago, we each wrote a letter to the other which we shared for the first time during our ceremony. In my letter to Josh, I included part of a journal entry that I had written nearly four years prior, on February 1, 2000: I have been deeply affected by someone today, and it is almost unfamiliar, the intensity of it. I am deeply aware of how other-worldly this thing feels. “I could go places with you,” I said. And I feel that so completely, it is startling. My eyes have been opened to something. I have seen what is possible.

 For fifteen years now, Josh and I have been nurturing “what is possible,” and perhaps that is why, where we once slammed doors and screamed at the tops of our lungs and stomped around in anger and in hurt for hours (days?) on end, we now move in and out of our shared and individual space with much more compassion and forgiveness and grace.

Which doesn’t keep us from hurting one another now and again, sometimes intentionally, sometimes because of a temporary lack of awareness, of which we were both guilty during this most recent fight.

We were getting ready to go out to a party. A real-life, actual party, which is the opposite of what I’ve been interested in doing these days; despite the fact that I have always loved a good party, lately, the thought of big crowds and small talk has been at the bottom of my wish list. So I wasn’t going to go. But Josh would be playing music (guitar, singing), and I didn’t want to miss it. And as the party came up in conversation with this dear friend and that dear friend, I found myself getting excited for something like this for the first time since my breast cancer diagnosis.

So here I was getting ready for my first big party in months, and I didn’t know what to do about my hair—or lack thereof. At first I planned to wear the wig I bought months ago only because it was covered by my insurance. The wig that I have only donned once since losing my hair in the beginning of December because it makes me feel like an imposter, like I am trying to be someone else, someone without cancer. (Which, let me be clear, I think is absolutely, positively, 1000% appropriate and understandable: that someone with cancer and without hair would want to sport a wig and move through the world as NOT a sick person. But for whatever reason I have yet to fully understand, wearing a wig—unless it’s an obviously-not-real-hair-bright-purple-wig—has not been for me.)

I didn’t want to wear the wig. I wanted to wear nothing (on my head, that is). But I was terrified to wear nothing. It’s been below freezing for months now. I cover my head everywhere I go, inside or out, with either a winter cap or what I refer to as a “cancer hat,” so that now I feel utterly naked with my head exposed. And yet, it has started to feel important to expose my head. Soon it won’t be freezing; and already, there have been times when I have been hot but have hesitated to remove my hat. I don’t want to be hot because I am afraid to remove my hat. I don’t want to do or not do anything because I am afraid. (As I write this, I am compelled to share the fact that twenty or so years ago, I shaved my head by choice… though “shaving” really meant the closest of buzz cuts. I tried unsuccessfully to pull up a photo. Picture me with chubby cheeks and black stubble across my scalp…. which now compels me to to share that today, my slowly-growing-back-hair is almost entirely white.)

So as I stood in front of the mirror a few Saturdays ago, putting my wig on, pulling it off, putting it on, pulling it off, I was trying to figure out whether I had the courage to “own” my bald head. And when I turned to Josh, asking him what he thought about me going to the party bald, he hesitated and gave a mild, “Whatever you want to do, honey.” That’s it: a little hesitation and a mild response, that was all it took for me to shut down. I went silent and cold (but still bald! I’m proud of that!), and we kissed our kids and my mom and left the house knowing we were in one of our fights.

As planned, we stopped for a drink, just the two of us, and this is what transpired: Josh, my love, my love, explained what was behind his cool response. That every time he sees me with my “cancer hat,” he sees his mom, who wore a similar hat before she died of ovarian cancer nearly seven years ago, at the age of 63. That of course he thinks I should go bald if I want to go bald, that he thinks I’m beautiful and courageous and strong. But that sometimes, he wants to forget that I have cancer. Sometimes, he can’t believe that cancer is pressing up against his life again. Sometimes, like in that moment when I asked about going to the party bald, he wished he could cover it all up and make it all go away.

Listening to Josh, I immediately softened, and just as quickly as our “fight” happened, our fight was over, and we were squeezing each other’s hands across the table, and I was telling him how grateful I am that he responded the way he did to my bald head, because it led to this conversation, and that I was so sorry he’d been seeing his mom in me all these months that I’ve worn that damn cancer hat, and that I want him to talk with me more about the thoughts and feelings I know he tries to protect me from, like his fear of me dying like his mom died, and that I was so sorry I haven’t checked in with him more these last weeks, and that I love him, I love him, I love him.

Image 5And then Josh and my bald-head and I went to the party. And while I can’t say that my breast cancer went away for either one of us that night, we both had the kind of fun we used to have before this crazy cancer-journey started.

Why I Love Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler, perhaps best known to the world for writing The Vagina Monologues, also wrote the following in her cancer memoir, In the Body of the World:

What if… when you got sick you weren’t a stage but in a process. And cancer, just like having your heart broken, or getting a new job, or going to school, were a teacher? What if, rather than being cast out and defined by some terminal category, you were identified as someone in the middle of a transformation that could deepen your soul, open your heart… And what if each of these things were what we were waiting for, moments of opening, of the deepening and awakening of everyone around us? (p88-89)

What if?

When I read this passage in Ensler’s book, I nodded, I smiled, I dog-earred the page, I felt not-crazy. I felt like someone understood why, instead of running screaming crying in the weeks after my breast cancer diagnosis, I flung my arms wide-open, welcoming transformation. Often since my diagnosis, I’ve thought: I want to be changed by this. Not because I long for a better life or a better me. I have a wonderful life and all-in-all, I feel pretty good about me. But because if something as big and surreal as breast cancer is going to land in my 39-now-40-year old lap, there has to be something to show for it. I want there to be something to show for it.

And so here I am, opening, deepening, awakening. (Hoping and trying, at least.)

(In addition to reading Ensler’s book, I encourage you to listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with her.)