By Gideon Schneider
November 7, 2008
In anticipation of my hair falling out, my hand kept on straying towards my scalp to check that all was still in place. Every time I passed a mirror I wondered whether my crown had thinned or if it was just a trick of the light. In the mornings, there were no escapee strands coating my pillow. Maybe a patch of night drool, but no hair. And as for the shower plug hole, that remained follicle free.
"I feel a bit cheated," I said to Vered, "I'm missing part of the experience." She herself went through chemotherapy only last year, at the age of 17. "It was pretty gross, I guess," she said, with the air of a thrill-seeker recounting a recent adventure. "I had hair falling in to my chicken soup and coming out all over the place. I just had to scratch my head and whole clumps would attach themselves to my fingers." Eventually she took her brother's clippers and shaved off what little remained of her once luxuriant locks. "I wasn't trying to be rebellious, it was just easier than constantly picking up stray curls. But I really liked the look - much to my mother's horror."
Friends could not understand how Vered could be anything other than horrified - but she found the situation funny. She fully encouraged her brothers' teasing when at the Friday night table they would ask her to "pass the salt, Baldy". She found it helpful that her family participated in her light hearted approach. "They took their cue from me."
However, three treatments in and I still had the same shadow of fuzz gracing my cranium. Maybe I wouldn't lose it after all; everybody reacts differently to the drugs. For now, at least, I was physically indistinguishable from healthy people. As I scanned the shoppers in Sainsbury's, I wondered how many others were hiding some illness behind their commonplace appearance. I must have been lost in thought a moment too long because an irate customer behind me in the line blurted out, "are you going to tap in your pin code or what? My giblets will have thawed by the time you finish." It was amusing to imagine how differently he would have spoken to me had he known my circumstances.
Blending in with the crowd was never something I was good at. At six foot five, everyone has always looked up to me. As I boarded the train after my chemotherapy session, it wasn't the cancer that distinguished me from my fellow travellers, it was, as usual, my height. It was rush hour and just as we thought the carriage was full to capacity, two suited, city types crammed themselves in to the carriage like a suddenly remembered garment into an already overstuffed suitcase. Seats were grudgingly vacated for the pregnant and the old. The doors squeezed shut, almost guillotining a bespectacled student whose head was poking out for lack of room inside. As the train shuffled in to the tunnel, my knees began to buckle with fatigue, while nausea made its way from my gut to my throat. Had I been the retiring kind, I would have suffered in silence, praying the contents of my stomach didn't make an impromptu public appearance. However, I reasoned those accommodating passengers would also have offered me their seat, had they known I needed it.
Although I felt slightly awkward asking a middle aged man for his seat, I overcame my hesitation and explained I was having treatment and needed to sit. He jumped up and motioned with his hand, courteously directing me to take his place. Although my need had been genuine, I felt I owed it the gentleman to give my illness some sort of visible expression. As such I tilted my head towards my shoes and sulked. I had to restrain myself from reading a discarded newspaper. My elaborate efforts paid off; every exaggerated wince and groan validated his sense of having done a good deed.
On disembarking I saw a lady struggle with a pram up the stairs of the station. Normally my knee jerk reaction is to assist, but this time dizziness and the knots in my stomach prevented me. She had enough to worry about with her baby throwing up on her left shoulder - she didn't need me contributing to the right one. Two young teenagers passed her, oblivious, before another lady took the front wheels. Usually such a display of antisocial indifference would have had me tutting worse than Blanche in the Rovers Returns. But this time, my own frailty made me consider how many times I have misjudged others, not being privy to their motives. It would have been over hasty making assumptions about those teenagers.
Still having my hair had benefits and disadvantages. It was liberating being able to get along without the cloying sympathy of onlookers. But, it would have been so much easier if my appearance was a sort of badge of my illness. Then there would be no need to explain during those rare times I DID need to be treated differently.