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Today we had our first (and it’s early!) wonderful snowfall – several inches of fluffy white powder.  And as always when the ground is covered with a blanket of white, it’s a great day to make snow angels.  I’m dedicating this angel to my girlfriend who’s been going through cancer treatment.  Today I also remembered the chapter below which I wrote (but never posted) a couple years back after I finished treatment.  So much of what I wrote then is still true today.  Enjoy…

We don’t get a lot of snow in Northwest Arkansas, at least not nearly enough for my Yankee DNA.  So when it snows even a few inches, it’s a special event.

Near my house, there’s a beautiful city park where I frequently walk and jog.  After a snowfall, this park instantly transforms into a winter wonderland playground.  Children (of all ages) haul out their dusty sleds, coasters, trashcan lids, cardboard boxes and even snowboards to take to the 100’ hillside on the south end of the park.  I can’t help but smile and laugh out loud as I watch kids racing down and trudging back up the hill, run after run, even long after the snow has been worn away and the undaunted have begun cutting ruts in the mud and the grass.  Apparently, glee doesn’t depend on perfect conditions.

One February morning, in the midst of a rare 18” snowfall (that’s huge for us), I ventured out to explore the magic.  If you get to the park early, before all the youngsters who are home from school sleeping in rush through their breakfast to hit the slopes, it’s quiet, the ground and air blanketed with silence, the avian orchestra usually performing at full tilt tucked in for the duration.  Even once the intrepid sledders have rediscovered the southern slope, shrieking in delight while their parents gossip and clutch coffee mugs at the top, on the north side of the park you can find quiet enclaves where the children’s screeching resembles distant birdcall.

This was a couple months after I finished my last round of chemo.  After my scans and blood marker levels returned to normal and peach fuzz was beginning to sprout from my scalp.  When prayers of beseeching had turned to gratitude, and relief.

And I did what I always do when offered the gorgeous blank slate of a virginal snowy bank – I lay down in it and made a snow angel.

The following day, I went out again to enjoy the snowy enchantment.  How could one not, every crystal now sparkling in the sunlight, the whole earth bedecked in a glistening mantle?  I walked the perimeter, observing the furrows of critters scurrying through the deep, laughing as big chunks of fluffiness fell from the branches, admiring the now icy sliding slope, worn smooth by scores of children’s backsides.  When I reached the north side, I stopped in my tracks.  There, next to my once solitary angel, were two more, flanking her.  I hadn’t seen an angel anywhere else in the park; I had looked.  And before I could even think the word emotion, watery tears slid down my pink cheeks and my throat caught with the realization that someone, or some ones, little ones, had plopped themselves down on the wet snow to give my angel company.  I saw how one angel alone calls in others, just by being there, simply by showing up; how joy is contagious, and cancer is not.

There’s something about impressing your prayers—and gratitude—into the surface of the earth, grounding what’s heavenly in you, digging your way into being, and belonging, here.  Matter matters.  I try to remember that celebrating beauty and joy every chance I get is an opportunity I don’t want to pass up.  Perhaps the only thing left to do when life dumps a showstopper on your doorstep is to step into the wonder of this new landscape and lay yourself down in it.  Like that Rumi quote on my office wall:  “Try something different; surrender.”  Submit to the inscrutable mystery of it all, because soon enough, spring will come and once again change everything, green life now shooting through what was once cold and hard and buried, irrepressible vitality transforming the tundra of a life into a symphony of color, sound and lush verdure.

Want to practice equanimity?  Ready to slam headlong into post-graduate training in realness?  Would you like to step outside of story (hers and yours) and take the next course in fierce and unconditional loving, despite the fact that some days she can’t talk to you and other days won’t, not because you’ve screwed up (you hope) but because she has no battery left to connect after consulting experts all week long and the only way for her to drum up enough juice to take her next brutal step is to put you on hold and trust that you’re there and that you’ll understand?

You could try railing at the Universe, “Do we have to do this again?”  Useless protest.  (I imagine an enormous Earth Mother, whose big belly holds the compassion for all beings, cradling me in her lap and saying, “Yes dear, you do.”)  And indeed, it’s we.  Because that’s what happens when your best friend comes up with the same friggin’ diagnosis.  Different body part. Same drill.  Same tsunami.  Cancer.

Is this what it’s like to have a child who’s hurting?  When your body aches for her pain, when your day rocks to a standstill because of the confusion, helplessness and as yet under-the-lid rage that you feel?  When menopausal brain, or leftover chemo brain, or doing-way-too-over-the-top-much-trying-to-keep-your-own-life-afloat-when-you-should-just-be-packing-up-and-going-there-to-be-with-her brain leaves you stranded somewhere in your kitchen and why did you get the mayonnaise out of the refrigerator anyway?

She puts gifts from you on her altar.  Can I just lay my body down there?

You want to hold the whole ocean of healing for her.  Yet sucked under the roiling seas, you flash again on the perilous straits, remembering crags and shipwrecks.  Damn, it’s cold and dark in here.  How do you breathe underwater?  Blind, you smack your shins on a rusty mooring and bleeding (still alive!), let go.  Oh yeah—fight and get thrashed by the deep; yield and the current carries you.  Yes, I remember.  Quietly I wait, suspended in the watery stillness of my own mind.  Awash with humility and tenderness, I feel the returning tides depositing me on soft, smooth sand, and I lay there, still and silent, for a while.

She calls when the next wave hits and I’m anchoring her because I’ve sailed these waters and know how to right the ship, even when its keel has dissolved in the surf.

We love the ocean, she and I.

We’re going to go there.  And play.  Naked.  Me with my 8” sagittal slice, the tidy seam through which I delivered the ovaries and uterus I didn’t intend for science and her with her Amazon breast or maybe a new one or two, expertly sized and formed forever.

Perfect.

You’d be hard pressed to find two women more dedicated to health and healing.  Professional and personal careers in wellness, a century between them.  Women who perhaps know too much, yet clearly much too little.  Alkalinity and enlightenment be damned; I say we go for the java stout.  Sit by the surf, let it lap our toes as we sip the foam off the top.  Lie back, stare at the stars, and laugh.

 

 

A friend just sent me this video.  Six minutes that will likely make your day more beautiful.  I wanted to get it up on my blog, just as soon as I wiped the tears away…

Thank you, Mary.

https://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?feature=player_embedded&v=nj2ofrX7jAk

I wrote this poem in December of 2010 after having completed chemo.  The poem resurfaced recently, and in discussions with clients and friends, seems once again timely.

Permission

For days
and nights
long suffering nights

I have been digging my own grave.

It is now
(plenty big)
Enough.

From the bottom of this hole
I have breathed
through the night
my face pressed against
clean, sweet Earth.

Fearless master, She
who loves Death
knows no foe
as She winds her limbs
around her everlasting Playmate’s.
Cajoles his angst
to dance upon my navel
tussles her lover
in joyous
carefree abandon.

Somehow
even after this last round
I am still standing.

I know earth must be turned
for next season’s garden.
Till then
permission now
to rest.

Here
I will lie
still
as a seed
silent in the darkness
awaiting spring rains.


Susan Drouilhet

                                


 

 


True North

The news is not all bleak.

I know a man who
every morning prays
for opportunities to serve.
Could be as simple as a smile.  Lending an ear.  Yielding in traffic.

It seems he’s not the only one.

Did you hear?

About the kindergarten teacher who gave
her kidney to her student’s dad
so he could see his little boy grow up

Or the couple
who tipped their waiter—
whose car lightning had destroyed—
five grand
to go and get another

Or the Hummer hero
who pulled in front of a speeding sports car
cell phone distracted
to save a group of children in the crosswalk.
Mettle on metal.
No one was injured.

True story.  I could go on.  About the

eight-year old
who gave his life savings—
three hundred dollars—
to neighbors
whose trailer had burned

and the panhandler who saw
a man realize he unwittingly
dropped his wedding ring and change
into a street musician’s case.
She tracked the saxophonist
then waited for the man
three weeks
till he again walked by.
The ring found its groom
the circle of love reunited.

Do you know

the 13-year old
beard barely sprouting
who donated his bar mitzvah gifts of thirteen thousand
to heal the facial wounds of veterans?
Perhaps he could write the book
on becoming a man.

Or the Secret Santa
who handed C-notes
to those severely slammed by Sandy—
to the tune of
one hundred grand?
We may never know his name.

Random?

“I didn’t think they made people like that anymore.”

They do.  They’re here.

They’re everywhere.

Not superheroes.
The teacher next door
the cop on the corner
children who haven’t (yet) learned
that they don’t have time
to care.

It’s you and me.  Or rather
Us.
Some grateful.
Some fallen from grace.
Or so we think.

It’s here.

Not fantasy.  Nor another planet.

And now.

It could be Christmas.  Or August 17th.

The ice is melting everywhere
When you give a man boots in New York
Hearts are warmed in Shanghai.

We may never know
how
words or deeds
we shared
will land
or when

All we know is thank you.

Somewhere, somehow
spaceship earth has fallen off
course and now
careening through the blackness
I wonder
Are we lost?

I don’t think so.  Not yet.

But by what compass can we
steer her back?

It doesn’t take
a genius
an act of Congress

or even an act of God

to hold the door
and help your neighbor
with her groceries

To smile and relinquish
being right
even if you are

To cherish
peace
more than power

Nothing matters
save this.
Must we lose everything
to remember?

The teacher locked in the bathroom with her class
Thinking they’re on their last breath
together
tells them
over and over and over
I love you
You are so loved
You are so loved
I love you
Because if this is it,
that’s the last thing she wants them to hear

Where did she go to school?

Who steps out and takes a bullet
or twenty
Mothers of the universe
have no time for debates
when they’re protecting the herd.

No, we are not yet lost.

We may be adrift
but even as waves
give rise to tortuous tempests

a teen puts a note in a bottle
and sends it sailing into the surf
wishing great joy
to whomever finds it
And five years later,
they do.

Surprise a friend.  Pay someone’s way.  Stop for a stranger.
Tell your kids you love them
And please
Please

hold them close.

When the world is shattered –

kindness.

It may be our only hope.

And our only way home.

Susan Drouilhet

Once I healed up adequately from surgery, I returned to the gym to begin reconditioning my body.  Due to my compromised state, I chose swimming, a sport I’ve often used to rehabilitate injuries.  Luckily, it’s also one of my favorite activities.  My purpose was manifold:  to build physical strength; get adequate aerobic exercise while bypassing the impact of running; facilitate the flushing of chemotherapy toxins from my system; and submerge myself (literally and figuratively) in my own underwater process and journey.  While I was swimming laps, the pool became my own personal “think tank.”

I wasn’t so prepared for the culture of the locker room.

I’m not very modest (though I am discrete), but I generally think of myself as a private person.  Throughout my life, friends have described me as someone “who holds her cards close.”  Simultaneously (maybe on alternate days), I have a reputation for being very open, willing and able to collectively plumb the depths of existence.  (This public sharing of my internal journey through cancer would be an example of this.)  Whether I opt for one versus the other modus operandi depends in large part on the appropriateness and timing given the particular circumstances and also on the degree of emotional safety I feel at the moment.  In general, I prefer to choose when I’m going to divulge my innards.  I think most of us do.  It’s a control thing—and often, a healthy one.

So what happens in a 10’ by 12’ dressing room where anywhere from one to several women are in various stages of undress as they prepare to enter the pool or re-enter the world after their watery workouts?  What does nudity in such proximity allow in terms of curiosity, conversation, boundaries—and their absence?

I can’t say it was just in the locker room where these exchanges occurred, because it wasn’t.  I’ve been asked on the street, in the post office, at the theater and elsewhere about my health by complete strangers.  But there is something about the cloister of the changing room at the gym that yields a moistness in which these conversations take root, unembarrassed and unimpeded.  I mean, what do you do when you’re standing there butt naked trying your damnedest to “live strong” and the well-intentioned lady whose name you don’t even know sitting on the bench across from you pipes up and asks, “Do you have breast cancer?”

One of my favorite “dialogs” started with the typical, “Are you in chemotherapy?”  I answered that I had been and had finished a couple months prior.  “You remind me of my sister.”  “Oh?”  “Yes, she’s doing chemotherapy now, and she’s got a great figure.  Just like you.  She’s got this great butt, not like the flat one that I have.  She’s just like you; you both have great butts!”  I mean, what do you say to that?  Thanks, I think?  Did this conversation really begin with, “Are you in chemotherapy?” and end with an assessment of my backside?  I think I managed “Have a good day!” as I made my escape from the locker room that afternoon.

I find it interesting how these women, most of them “strangers” who I saw maybe once or twice a week, regularly monitored and commented on my progress.  While I thought I was minding my own business and taking care of myself, their need to connect around the status of my health continued to present itself.  Over time, I became less astonished by it, and in some ways, could feel how sweet it was to be noticed and tended to by this community of mostly older women, many of whom, I came to understand, had been there, done that, or knew someone who had.  Perhaps my commitment to health and fitness impressed them; sometimes they mentioned that.  But mostly it was my journey through cancer that seemed to inspire their curiosity and commentary.  Maybe it was too close to home and standing there in all our nakedness together, even closer than any of us could admit.  I often wondered if, with their encouragement (“You’ll be fine!”, “Your hair is growing in so fast!” “You’re doing great!”), it was really me they were reassuring.

These moments remind me of what a friend told me at the beginning of this journey: that cancer is a community illness.  We’re all affected by it, profoundly.  There’s really nowhere to hide.  The conversations in the locker room just made that glaringly obvious.  But maybe—through all those months of hauling my ass to the gym, pushing through exhaustion and frustration and fear, allowing others to see me stripped bare by this dreaded disease and through it all, still managing to keep my head above water—maybe, just maybe, there was a community healing going on as well.

That would be worth every last lap.

 

On February 1, 2010, I was bolted awake in the early morning by a powerful dream.  Grabbing a pen and the nearest paper available – the blank back page of my calendar (which doubles as my diary) – I recorded the following:

“I dreamt I went to a female doctor with deep bright pinkish red lipstick and dark hair pulled back in a bun.  She palpated my kidneys and told me my left one needed to be removed.  I went to another male doctor in a hospital and he said the same thing and said it should be done in the hospital (as opposed to the doctor’s office).  I was walking through a city calling or thinking I needed to call my homeopath to ask him what to do – I wanted to heal my kidneys without removing them.

“I was at a lifeguard summer camp intensive; we had to pool test.  We had cinch gear bags with the stuff we needed in them.  In the pool, we were squished in like sardines, in a “suicide circle” formation [the former nickname—no longer used—of a test in camp lifeguard training where the guard being tested was in the water surrounded by several counselor “victims”].  We “rescued” an older woman for the first test.  I helped, demoed, led; “you must protect the head.”  Back to locker room to prepare/change for 2nd test.

“Walking back (through a holiday bazaar), I saw three men I knew – and gave one [a friend of mine who is a doctor] a big hug.

“Then I was in ritual ceremony – it was night, candlelight.  It was like ritual dismemberment.  Instead of kidneys it was my ovaries – left ovary.  I sat in my seat, swaying and moving into another consciousness.  There was a large group of people.  I was facing my sister.  My brother-in-law came up to me from the right side and was telling me that part of the ritual had already happened (I was late), as if to keep me in line.  I ignored him and went deeper, swaying to the drumbeat.  I made a stop sign with my hands in four directions to block interruptions.  A woman came up in front of me to talk to me.  My sister laughed (at the futility of me trying to stop interruptions).  My left ovary was sliced, the eggs squeezed out and named – Lily, Mackenzie…  Perhaps this was ritual menopause – the making of a crone?”

After recording the dream, I shut my diary and completely forgot about it.

My waking journey with cancer began about one month later; first, with a visit to my female nurse practitioner and then to the male doctor at the hospital.  I was simultaneously in dialog with my homeopath who was investigating the health of my kidneys (in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the kidney system includes the reproductive organs).  Throughout this period, my Tibetan Buddhist teacher reminded me that it was vital to keep my mental state clear (“you must protect the head”).  Three days before the first surgery, I had a blessingway ceremony with several of my close friends present.  (Normally, a blessingway is a ritual held for a mother ready to give birth, to surround her with the love and power and prayers of her female support system.  I decided to have one for what I was about to birth in me.)  It was a powerful event and moving for all of us; and at least for me, consciousness-altering.  Three days later, I underwent the first surgery where my left ovary was removed.  There were ultimately two “tests” (surgeries).

On May 9th, more than three months after I dreamed it, I rediscovered my revelation of February 1st.  I was sitting on the couch reading and writing when my diary fell open to its back page. This was the morning following the blessingway and two days before the first surgery.  The accuracy of the premonition, as revealed subsequently in both the physical and psychic worlds, stunned me.

My friend Andrea was visiting at the time.  Calling her downstairs, I shared the dream with her.  Dumbstruck, we sat on the couch and stared at one another.  And I wondered – can we make mistakes?

I don’t normally record my dreams.

 

Some say we’re getting close to a cure for cancer.  That’s great news in a world where billions of dollars and millions of lives are consumed with battling this disease.  And yet, with all our conventional and alternative medical and technological wizardry, sometimes people are cured, and sometimes still they’re not.

I’ve had friends die from cancer.  I have friends currently dealing with the disease, some for the second or third time, and I know many who’ve outrun it.  I’ve been through it and hope to never have to again.

Regardless what the future brings, I know it is possible to heal your life and live or die with this disease.  So I wrote the following for those dear to me and those I don’t yet know who may sometimes forget the joys of life amidst their struggles against time.  And because these are words to live by, they are really meant for all of us, whether we have 100 years or just 100 breaths to go.

* * *

If I could hold your hand and look you in the eye right now, I would.

This culture we’re in sees death as failure and disease as weakness.  It’s just not true.  You can’t fail in the school of Life.

There’s something so much bigger going on here.  You have no idea how your life’s journey, just as it is, has affected the world.  Remember the butterfly effect?

All that stuff about creating your own reality?  Please toss the parts that smack of guilt.  I think Christiane Northrup said it best:  “For healing to occur, we must come to see that we are not so much responsible for our illnesses as responsible to them.”

Remember, cancer is just one episode.  Who were you before?  Who will you be after?  Who are you now?

I’m truly grateful for your stepping up and dropping down.  That is a gift beyond measure.  When you look fear in the face, you make it easier for all of us.

I remember the times our hearts broke open and mended back, stronger.  I remember your warrior spirit and the moments we laughed till we cried.  I remember your kindness, your tenderness and vulnerability, your courage to plan yet another adventure when what was unknown was way more than what was.  Is that not always so?

How we remember ourselves is our choice.

It’s okay not to be perfect.  Welcome to the human race.  No one is to blame.  And NO ONE HAS FAILED.  Including you.

Death is not the enemy.  Our fear of it is.  And remember, you don’t have to wait till your funeral to play your favorite music.

Whatever you need now, permission granted.  Not that it’s mine to give.  It’s yours to give.  I am just reminding you.

Oh, and one more thing.

Well, two.

Thank you.

I love you.

I can count on one hand the number of times throughout this entire oncological adventure when I have actually articulated, “I have (or now had) cancer.”  When people inquire, I usually respond with, “I was diagnosed with cancer,” or “I’ve been through treatment for cancer.”  The few times I did say those three words, there was a reason I didn’t want to engage at that moment and so just opted for the most socially expedient response and then quickly made my escape.  Even now, two years post-treatment, I can still squirm and wince at least a little when writing that amazingly loaded, life-altering, puny little sentence.

The reason for my very conscious linguistic circumspection was that it helped me to create a psychological boundary.  It wasn’t denial.  I did my research, showed up at my appointments, endured treatments I abhorred, and damn, engaged a public discourse about the experience.  I wasn’t exactly hiding, from myself or anyone else.  Rather, my choice to draw a line in the psychic sand was more about fierce inner hygiene.  Cancer in the O.R. is messy, especially when microscopic malignancies evade a surgeon’s scalpel.  Cancer in the chemo ward is a crapshoot, gamblers all wagering deadly toxins against their lives.

But cancer in the mind is the biggest tragedy of them all.

Cancer never landed on me as a diagnosis because I didn’t let it.  Even after months of treatment, I would still find myself asking, “What am I doing in here?” For it made no sense, to me or anybody else.  Family and friends were astounded.  Several of the healers I worked with were challenged by the diagnosis.  The non-traditional ones, the medical intuitives who were very familiar with the vibration of cancer, did not pick it up.  The pathologists in the hospital had enough question about the complex tissue samples to want to send them off for expert readings at specialized labs.  And while all this was going on, folks on the street were telling me I looked radiant.

Did I doubt the diagnosis?  No.  And yes.

While a few (perhaps several million, but it’s all relative) of my cells may have switched on the cancer gene, I strove to never let the vibration of cancer and the cultural mythology surrounding malignancy settle on me.  We have such a story going on about what it means to have cancer and what’s required to engage it fully.  War, battle, fight, enemy, victim, survivor, remission—all these words are loaded with huge assumptions (which I plan to unpack in later chapters).  For now, suffice it to say that what gives power to an event is our intention.  If we’re locked even unconsciously into the fears endemic to the C-word, then by saying “I have cancer,” we can unwittingly buy into a socially prescribed malaise that has nothing to do with engaging the life force needed to literally or metaphorically switch that gene back off and get on with the business of living.  And so, given the opportunity (and there were many), I would ask myself, “With what do you identify:  illness, or wholeness?  Where do you want to put your attention?”

Because of my answers to these questions, it was hard to acknowledge that I had a disease, because I just didn’t identify with it.  Others may have claimed that I was sick, but I refused to go there.  Again, not because I had my head in the clouds (or the sand) drinking some New Age Kool-Aid which dictated that I create my own reality and therefore this was my fault so I better not even pronounce the word if I wanted to get better.  No, more because I am understanding more and more that all phenomena are just vibrations and the less story we create about any of it, the easier it is to shift the frequency.

There’s an interesting recent twist to this whole story.  It was literally just last week that I could finally say, “Yeah, I had cancer,” and leave no internal residue.  Here’s what happened:  I am scheduled for my next round of follow-up exams in a few weeks.  And, as is often the case when preparing to reenter the oncology universe, fear cropped up.  Mostly I was ignoring it and even helping others negotiate their own dread around similar circumstances.  Until a friend sent me a video that got under my skin and triggered my fears in a way I could no longer avoid.   So I asked myself, “What is this?  And what does it mean that you refuse to say those words?  Are you really divorced from the story, or are you still in fear?”  When it came up tails, I got to look again.

At Death.  At Fear.  And how I could let even my fear of Life deliver me, radiant and full bodied, into the clutches of Its mortal twin.  Stifling the joy and peace of this moment.  Robbing me of the awareness of bliss with every breath.  Dropping the guillotine of judgment all because of untoward diagnosis.  Locking me into the casket of mis-identification, confusing life with something that doesn’t include the moments that sear us to the bone.  When I really understand these unwell thought forms—and enfold them with the compassionate embrace of present moment love and attention—they die.  And I come back to life.

So yeah – I had cancer.  And on my best days, this doesn’t mean anything special, extraordinary or unusual.  It doesn’t generate fear—of living or dying.  It doesn’t define me; it’s not how I mark my life.  I am neither victim nor hero.  And if I find myself fighting any battle at all, it is to never, ever let cancer have me.

Maybe it’s all about detachment, impermanence.    Whatever you want to call it, the lessons you can learn from your hair, and its absence, definitely fall into the category of “Buddhist Opportunities” (a perspective so graciously offered by my dear friend Joy).

I had never considered hair my strong suit.  Yes, it was a pretty light brown, incredibly soft, and in recent years, naturally lit with compliment-drawing silver, gold and copper highlights.  But it was also fine, mostly straight without much body, and difficult to style (at least with the amount of effort and goo I was willing to apply, which wasn’t very much).  In fact, it was only in the months before being diagnosed with cancer that I, years after losing my last good hairdresser, once again found one whom I really liked.  And with her help, a hairstyle I loved.  Finally!

Then a few short months later, chemo.  And with that, baldheadedness.  Buddhist Hair Opportunity Number One.

Going bald was a big deal, and it wasn’t.  The anticipation was worse than the event.  My boyfriend and his kids helped me celebrate with a head shaving party.  Wearing crew cuts at the time, both kids did the honors and we went from ponytail to mohawk to buzz in the span of 24 hours.  In solidarity, Kevin buzzed his thick head of hair, too.  Over the next several days, as my ¼” fuzz got patchy and began to look unhealthy (imagine that!), we shaved my scalp as close as we could and left it at that.  Chemo took care of the rest.

I’m fortunate.  I have a great-shaped head.  I actually look good without hair.  Some said I could model.  As a bonus, I always wanted to shave my head.  For years I toyed with that desire.  But that was as part of a planned Buddhist Opportunity.  Something I could choose, and control.  Optional spiritual discipline.  Not something that demands your equanimity as it slams you upside the head.  Careful what you wish for.

Body hair was the next to go.  Who knew that all the different types of hair on a body (head, pubic, leg and arm, eyebrows, eyelashes) all had different rates of growth and subsequently different rates of loss?  Well, my doctor did, and maybe lots of people do.  But I’d never thought about it before.

Buddhist Hair Opportunity Number Two?  Pubic hair.  Except for a few stragglers—a very lean “Brazilian”—gone.  Granted, I didn’t miss having to address the escapees sneaking out the bottom of my bathing suit.  But I did have a hard time relating to this once again pre-pubescent body.  Who was this “tweener” in the mirror?  Yikes.  It was adolescent self-discovery all over again.

About three months into chemo, I noticed an odd sensation on my arms and legs.  I’d felt it before and wondered if it was some strange nerve reaction to the drugs.  Suddenly I realized, this is the feeling of freshly shaved legs!  Wow – I didn’t have any body hair!  Now I’m not a very hairy person to begin with, but discovering how much even fine blond down mediates our interface with the environment astonished me.  Buddhist Hair Opportunity Number Three was more about increasing awareness versus a forced letting go.  Ah, a moment of grace.

But lest I attach to that momentary joy, right around the corner was Buddhist Hair Opportunity Number Four:  the eyebrows.  One doc said I wouldn’t lose them.  Others said, oh yes you will.  Everyone was right, partially.  I didn’t want to lose my eyebrows, really didn’t want to lose them.  I even attended the beauty workshop at the Cancer Support Home primarily to learn to draw them on, should I need to.  Pleading with the Facial Hair Goddess was of no use.  My beautiful, healthy “Brooke Shield” brows gradually thinned out to a very sparse line.  My lashes did the same, leaving me with an oddly-spaced few on each upper lid.  Yet, even without the makeup pencil (which somehow I just couldn’t manage), I learned to be okay with looking like a reptile.

Of course, just as I got used to all this hairlessness, Buddhist Hair Opportunity (BHO) Number Five arrived:  re-growth.  You might not think it, but this phase requires detachment, too.  It’s a bit nerve-wracking to watch peach fuzz emerge from your scalp and have no idea what you will look like in a week, a month, a year.  Admittedly, tucked in between moments of desire and angst, was the thrill of seeing my baby lashes push out through their follicles.  It was like celebrating a newborn’s progress, every day a wonder to behold.

They say it often comes back thicker, curly, a different color.  It did.  I was hoping for red.  It was gray.  MAJOR Buddhist Opportunity.  Totally not fair.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, either.  Over the ensuing months, my hairdresser and I watched as my crop grew through curly (loved that and hated the day she cut it off – BHO #7), and from gray back to mostly brown.  It actually turned less gray than it was before I was ever diagnosed!  Yup.  One day when I walked in for my bi-monthly trim, Chrissy asked, “Did you henna?”  Nope.  “Is this unusual?” I asked.  “Very.”  (I attribute this regeneration to qigong practices I began post-chemo.  But more about that later.)

Today, two years after I’ve completed treatment, several haircuts and styles later, folks still regularly comment on the progress of my hair.  How fast it’s growing, how healthy it and I look, and how are you doing, anyway?  It’s not really my hair they’re assessing.  They’re checking to see if I’m as okay as I look.  Because, despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m still being identified by a disease.  I guess that’s the price of going public.  This is tough for one who has devoted her life to health and wholeness.  So whenever I’m asked, I get to bow once again before this razor-sharp teacher called Illness.  She who dispassionately strips us bare of all superfluities, both visible and invisible, hair and ego gone in one fell swoop.  Clearly, I haven’t yet reached enlightenment.  In spite of this moment’s full head of radiant hair, the Buddhist Opportunities still keep coming…