I attended a business/social event this past month at which I had to reintroduce myself to several people who have known me for years but had not seen me in some time. I recognized them as soon as I saw them. Their faces bore familiar landmarks that could not be dismissed even after as many as ten years had passed. The slope of a nose, the shape of a moustache, the slightly more deeply etched laughter lines, and the curve of a lower lip were recognizable from across the room.
When I approached these long ago colleagues each of them seemed at first uncertain about my identity. Eyebrows met in confusion. One head tilted a little to one side, as if trying to catch the lilt of a distant tune. Another turned his ear toward me, prompting me to say my name. One of them stuck out his hand even before he “placed” me. His smile just grew broader when I said my name.
I had not imagined that I might not be recognized. I have been to some of their homes. I have traveled with some of them for business reasons. I have worked with them. I have not forgotten them and they had not forgotten me. But they could not place me in the legion of people whom they have met, worked with, and known.
This is not the first time that I have been called upon to jog another’s memory of what I imagined was my unindelible place in it. It has been about 18 months since my diagnosis with cancer. I have had to reintroduce myself to some people who last saw me only one or two years ago. I recently waved to several former students and they looked at me without seeing me until I said my name. Then they smiled and admitted they had not recognized me.
I lost some, but never all, of my hair following my treatment with chemotherapy. It used to be dark blonde and cut in a chin length bob. It was that length, although sometimes lighter, nearly all of my life. When I was very young, my hair was very light in color. My dad called me “hayhead.” There were reddish highlights as I grew older. My Grandpa Kayo had those same red highlights in his moustache and beard, so I was quite comfortable with them. There were times when I lightened or brightened or even darkened my hair, but it was not all that radical a change after I stopped using “Sun In,” a hair lightener that combined lemon and sun to return me to my “hayhead” blonde coloring in my teens.
Since chemotherapy, I have worn my hair short and its color has faded to a brown. It has a wave that appeared after treatment and was not there before. I have traces of silver across the crown that are new and have been mistaken for “frosting.” So, yes, my hair is different.
I used to dislike these changes. I have become accustomed to them. My hair has never been softer to the touch. I wash it and do not worry about it. There is no need for cream rinse or gel or spray to manage it. I see Mariam to get it cut once a month. She snips it into a short cap and tries to talk me into teasing it with my fingers and a little gel into a spiky cap, but I cannot be bothered any longer to mess with what “nature” (if there is anything natural about chemotherapy) has given me. I no longer use a comb to regiment its strands. I run my fingers through it and forget it.
I have no idea what has happened to my several hair dryers or curling irons or rollers. I finally assembled all my barettes, headbands, scrunchies, clips, and other devices into a shoebox. I am thinking of mailing them off to my niece’s “tweenage” daughter on the theory that she might reinvent some use for them. They are vestiges of the old me for which New-Me has no use.
When my hair was falling out, sometimes a strand at a time, sometimes in small tufts that somehow avoided leaving me with bald spots, I learned to stop touching it at all. I started sleeping with a neck roll instead of a huge pillow. The roll supported my head without putting pressure on my hair. I still find strands of my former mane when I wear what I think of as my “chemotherapy” sweater. I detach them carefully because the hairs that remain have become entwined with the garment’s gray woolen strands. I set them aside or toss them in a handy trash receptacle. Little by little I have shed the old me.
This week a former student met with me to discuss her job search plans and she asked me what happened to my red hair. She spoke of the red wig I wore when my hair was quite thin but starting to return. I also had a red-gold wig and a very blonde wig that I never did wear out of the house. I don’t wear the wigs any longer. My hair may have changed, but it is back, and I still recall the day the wig fell off during a lecture and I had to grab it and plop it back on my head. I may be unfamiliar to some who have not seen me in awhile, but I am more comfortable in my own “skin” than in anything else.
I do not think I look all that different now that I wake each morning and look in the mirror at the New-Me every day. But this past week was a reminder that, even when it seems that nothing much has changed, what is happening in my life is making changes. My body is different. My hair has changed. My outlook reflects new concerns.
Many of the changes have nothing to do with cancer. I turned 56 in the last week. Age takes its own toll.
I read the blogs of many people who have been treated for cancer. Some of those people speak of their scars with horror, sadness, or misgiving. They have often experienced radical surgery that forever changes the landscape that was once familiar. My scar runs from side-to-side across my body, but I cannot any longer see it. Dr. D, the surgeon at Advocate Masonic Medical Center did such a superb job that the staples came out within five days after surgery. Long after the incision had healed I had difficulty feeling anything within several inches of the site. The nerves have reconnected and I am not feeling visibly scarred by surgery.
Not that treatment has left me physically unchanged. In addition to changes to my hair there are changes from radiation and chemotherapy that linger. There is pain. At times I have thought the pain had etched scars in my life far more disturbing than the scars visible on my body. It is not a good thing to have pain every day.
Ever since I decided to stop recording my pain level a few dozen times a day it has ceased to define the New-Me. It is there, but it is becoming like my missing hair dryers. I no longer feel the urge to snap at others when I am feeling pain. I have learned to unclench my jaw and let the pain radiate through and out of my body. When the pains are sharpest and seem to gouge into the core of my body, I wrap my arms around my own body and rock a little. If the pain is bad enough to make me cry, then I let the tears well up and tell myself that those tears will carry the pain right out of me. It comforts me to send a message of love to that part of me that seems foreign and wrong. And, luckily for me, my pain is not sustained. At this stage in my recovery, my pain is episodic. I believe that it will keep abating. That belief sustains New-Me.
I used to hate the strangeness of my post-treatment body to the point where I hated the smell of my own body. I really do not know if that sense of alienation has disappeared because chemicals have left my body and returned me to “normal” or if I have become more accepting of the changes that have taken place. I am relieved to have gotten past the feeling that I was a stranger to myself.
Soon I will get past the sense that I am a stranger to people who have known me. New-Me is someone I have come to know and like. She just takes a little “getting used to.”