Tuesday, 23 December 2008
What's In A Face
Besides your eyes, nose and mouth, what’s in a face? Usually besides your weight, it is one of the first things that you are judged on. People look at our faces and they see us and we see them. They become real and we become real. We connect. What do you think happens when they stop looking? Are we no longer here?
In other words, if you have a face in a forest but no one connects to that face, does that face exist.
Well if you have cancer, others’ reactions to you may make you feel unsure if you exist or if you do exist, why you are out of your house putting a damper on other peoples groove.
I have been thinking of my sweet friend Jill so much in the last few weeks and remembering the time that Nadalene drove us to see a movie and how we were pointed at because of our appearance.
I want to tell you what it feels like to be gawked at. How it makes you feel and how eventually you start gawking at yourself. Here are my feelings and a few little stories to help you understand.
When Kirsten first shaved my head, and I was on chemo every Friday I not only looked greenish but I also looked like my brother Gerry. I basically had a quarter of an inch of hair. I looked foreign and I also looked androgynous (I’m surprised to see that I’m tearing up). I knew it was going to happen but I was in awe of how sick I suddenly looked. It doesn’t look like me and it doesn’t feel like me. This is what a person with cancer looks like. There is no denying it now. I introduce my children (who are pretending it looks great) to their new father.
Jill had not been feeling well from radiation and I was not feeling well because I had chemo the day before (normally I would never go because I felt like shit – I can’t even say the name of the movie because it reminds me of how sick I felt and makes me want to throw-up) but Jill wanted to go see it and I didn’t want to say no, because I knew we might not have another chance.
Nadalene dropped us off at the front door and I’m telling you it took us probably 20 minutes to get to the ticket counter, we were so pooped out and Jill was having a hard time breathing.
But what I’m really trying to get to here is how everyone stared at us. Neither of us had any hair to speak of and we walked like we just got out of a concentration camp. I understand too well the term ‘walking dead.’ There were two young girls (maybe 10) that couldn’t take their eyes off us. That I could understand.
Somedays I remind the woman in the mirror that the pursuit of happiness lays within. Who I am is determined by me, not somebody else (or in many cases with contact in the outside world many somebody else’s). I know that the physical is just that: physical. But it is my physical.
Yet up pops my ego (also known as my inner critic) with her self-centered narrative always finding flaws and never seeing the beauty in the image in the mirror. Always jumping on the negative and never getting near the positive.
I am unable to wear a bra because of the metastasis to the skin and my right breast is about six inches higher than my left and is also much firmer because of the radiation. I have burn marks on my upper collarbone from the radiation as well. My left arm is half the size of the right. My left arm also has my PICC line in it so it looks very robotic.
When Josephine was born I decided to wear the wig so that no one could see my life by my hair. I wanted it to be about Angelique and Don and the baby and not any doctors thinking oh ‘the mother has cancer.’
I felt so phony and I had to hold my sweet girl with that thing on my head. Her first sight of her grandma was not real. My ego was beside me taking away my feelings of pleasure by telling me that I looked ridiculous and phony. I kept the charade of the wig all the time Angelique and Josephine were in the hospital.
I knew for sure that my shaved head would elicit a few stares. But mostly people avoided looking at me. It is like I became invisible overnight. I look so different from my former self that people I know do not even recognize me. I went from someone with no wrinkles to someone with lots of wrinkles.
People avert their eyes when I walk by. Is it because they know that I am sick and they don’t want to take a chance at looking in case the evil eye gets them and they too end up with cancer. Or is it because they know I’m sick and they don’t want to stare? Have I become so hideous that people don’t want to look at me anymore?
I’m beginning to feel that no one can see me but children. Adults pretend they can’t see me or they avert their eyes, while small kids eyes widen in horror.
When I was having chemo at the hospital I was looking at some pictures of me, my mother, Angelique and Josephine. A couple of ladies who were also getting chemo asked to look at the pictures. They then asked me if my mother was my sister.
Another time I went to the doctor’s office with my sister Shelly (five years younger) and the doctor asked me if she was my daughter.
Kermit the frog says it is not easy being green and I have to agree with him. It is also not easy to be exposed to possible ridicule, to naked viewing, to seeing and feeling things that I’d rather avoid, to not seeing myself as other people see me. I have become visually unpleasant to people. They wish I would stay in my home.
I forced myself to wear my wig to Nadalene’s wedding because I did not want her wedding pictures to have me in it with a bald head and to have her looking at her pictures and being reminded of my cancer. After all for 29 years of her life I did have hair.
I wore the wig and although it was okay, it also wasn’t. On the other hand when I look at pictures I am glad I wore it.
Everyday we get stuff wrong. We forget the dignity and respect that others deserve. We communicate badly and worse than that we ignore (instead of respectfully lay aside) other people’s concerns.
The funny thing that you would never gather from this post is that I didn’t ever care that I lost my hair. It didn’t and still doesn’t matter to me. All of the physical appearance stuff really doesn’t matter in a generic sense. I tend to shuffle instead of walk. I am hunched and totally baby my shoulders so that they don’t hurt.
But with the help of people’s reactions to me I look less rosy. My eyes don’t light up the way they used to. I still smile. I still try.
In Moose Jaw, Jacquie, Nadalene and I were at a mineral spa for three days and not once did anyone initiate a conversation with me. They talked to Nadalene or Jacquie and looked straight over my head, unless of course I turned fast and then they were looking at my PICC with the plastic sleeve over it. As a matter of fact, one day about ten people were laughing and talking and then I came out with Jacquie and as they all tried to pretend I was not there, the silence became deafening.
I want you to know that if you are going through chemo for cancer or are taking medications for other serious illnesses and you don’t look like you use too, that you don’t frighten all people. There are always the people who love you and there are always people who care.
When I first met Jill she was sitting cross-legged in a chair in a group meeting room. My first impression was ‘Wow is she ever beautiful.’ Jill had curly hair and the friendliest smile and the best personality. When I last saw Jill in a hospital room my impression of her was ‘Wow is she ever beautiful.’ Jill had no hair and the friendliest smile and the best personality.
Even when you feel really alone there is always someone out there wishing hard for you. Wishing they were able to share your pain with you. Maybe there is even somebody watching you and thinking how beautiful you are, but you just can’t see them or maybe you turned away just at the wrong moment.