Short answer: Get cancer and shave your head.
There’s a longer answer, too, but I’ll get to that in a second.
If spending four days in the hospital and being forced to work from home wasn’t enough to make this cancer battle seem real, an experience I had on Friday certainly did the trick. I was in the bathroom washing my hands and nonchalantly rubbed the beard on the side of my cheek. It felt a little tender as I rubbed it. Then I looked down at my hand and the sink…covered in small red hairs. I looked back at my face and saw a patch of beard that was just a little bit thinner than it had been a few minutes earlier. The most outward sign of being a chemo patient was finally upon me. As the day went on, I noticed a few more fallen little red hairs showing up in random places. When I took a nap on Saturday and woke up with a lot of slightly longer brown hairs on my pillow, I figured it was time to pull the trigger on my plan to shave my head before the chemo took care of business for me.
I know this seems like it should have been a very moving, touchstone experience for me, but it just didn’t feel that way. If anything, it was exceptionally freeing. I felt like I was shedding the annoyance of finding my hair everywhere (my wife’s hair is enough) but more importantly I was parting with an insecurity that I’ve been carrying around for years. In my pre-enlightened-by-Lumpy days, I was pretty insecure about the impending loss of my hair. I consulted old family photos and Google to try to figure out the genetics of whether or not I was destined for baldness. I would look at photos of myself from just a few years ago and compare them to the current state of my hairline. Being a fan of short hair, I lamented the fact that a level-6 buzzcut was starting to make me look as bald as a level-3 buzzcut previously did. I started Googling hair restoration solutions and was even mildly tempted by this Chia-like oregano that you spread on your bald pate. I wasn’t considering a combover yet, but I’m afraid it might have come to that.
Getting married to a woman who didn’t care about the lushness of my locks definitely helped me care less about this, but I was still frequently peeking at my widow’s peak even after I’d put a ring on it and claimed I didn’t care anymore.
But now I feel like I’m cured of this worry. I’m not sure if it’s the amount of ego-humbling time I’ve spent in a fashionable hospital gown lately or the fact that there’s literally a disease inside my body trying to kill me, but for some reason the number of fruitful follicles on my head is suddenly a low priority for me. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m going to start worrying about this again after my life returns to normal and my hair eventually grows back. Besides, it turns out that the head under my hair is thankfully rather normal-shaped, so I feel more like an action movie star than a chemo patient.
When you’re facing down the barrel of an illness that could kill you without the miracle of modern medicine, any blurry edges in your life suddenly snap into focus. It actually feels really, really good. Cancer has become the nail polish remover of my life. It’s slowly stripping things down to the bare essentials. Work is far less important. Teaching is not an option. Plans are subject to change. Feeling normal is a luxury. Writing is a therapeutic pleasure. Prayer is essential. And baldness is an instant reality instead of a creeping phantom.
I guess it’s too bad that it took something like this for me to stop sweating the small stuff, but cancer somehow seems to be a more effective teacher than a $4 inspirational book. This side effect is definitely making this journey more worthwhile. I’m alive and will continue to be. Who cares how much hair I have? Bring on the bald jokes.
P.S. I guess this childhood photo should have proven to me that I could pull off the bald look without a problem. What was I so worried about?
P.P.S. My rescheduled second chemo treatment is tomorrow (Monday), so prayers for high white blood cell counts are most appreciated! I want to make it worth the trip this time.