Alexander the Great swaggered around, claiming no part of his body was without a scar, but he never had to battle uterine cancer. Twenty-three-year-old CALLIE BATES on the cheap wig and lots of love that got her through chemo.
My doctor didn’t know how to react. “You like purple?” he asked. “Well, yes,” I said. I wanted to explain that it was supposed to be funny. Dr. M is a dear, small Italian man, but he does not know what to do with humor; he excels at tragedy. Give him a tear and he will be holding your hand, telling you that everything will be fine, that you must ask yourself, “What am I called upon to do?” and through this calm, this insight, you will prevail over all the challenges leveled at you.
Purple wigs are a little out of his league.
I turned the bright bob-cut acrylic thing inside out and stuffed it back into its plastic bag, feeling rather sheepish.
Meanwhile, Dr. M’s resident winked at me behind his back. “That was excellent,” she mouthed.
Despite the relative popularity of toupees and men’s general anxiety over bald spots, it seems that wigs are a girl’s thing. Perhaps when you have less hair to start with it is not as disturbing when it begins to come out in handfuls. But I cannot believe this change is easy for anyone.
Prior to meeting with Dr. M, I had gone up to the mezzanine level of my hotel lobby to Renee’s wig store. Head firmly ensconced in my purple, cotton beanie, it took me awhile to pluck up the courage to ask the owner if I could try on some wigs.
“Are you losing it or growing it back in?” she asked when I removed my hat.
“Losing it,” I said. “It’s chemo. I go in for my second treatment tomorrow.”
She pulled a sad face. I’m only twenty-three and perhaps I look younger, although in Rochester, Minnesota, adjacent to the Mayo Clinic, I’m sure they see people far worse off than little old me. But still. You can’t close off your heart.
We tried on wigs of all sorts. Short ones, long ones, red, blond, brown, black, and (just before the purple) a fetching pink pixie with a black forelock. I am by nature a dark brunette, but in the pit of my soul I still cherished a nine-year-old’s yen to be a vibrant redhead with green eyes the color of emeralds, just like Felicity from the American Girls, not to mention the sword-wielding, dragon-fighting, buttkicking Aerin and Alanna who filled my childhood bookshelves. And for a moment, sitting in front of that oval mirror in the back of the shop, surrounded by many-colored wigs mounted on Styrofoam heads, I imagined that by changing my hair I could change the essence of who I was.
But whatever hair I wore, I was still me. Same small pixie face. Same freckles. Same hazel eyes. It was the eyebrows and lashes and even nose hairs that I would lose in the next three months, so that my face would become too smooth, un-furred. That’s what I was afraid of on that day in October in Rochester. I was afraid of what I might become, of what chemo would turn me into. I couldn’t bear the thought of becoming a stranger to myself. That’s why I was trying on wigs, of course—in case I became too self-conscious of my baldness, in case I needed to put on another person’s hair in order to see myself in the mirror. My hair had only begun to fall out the week before.
When Renee brought in the purple wig, I knew that was the one. Acrylic and natty and spilling into my eyes, hot and itchy and lavender, it said, I am yours. And for $28, I would take it. I might be worried about my appearance, but, by God, I wanted to make people laugh. You’ve got to laugh. Chemo is no laughing matter.
Besides, Renee could always mail me one of the other, nicer, “realer” wigs for $300 if I decided to pretend I had real hair. I was always dressing up as a child, always pretending to be someone else. Both the purple wig and the realer wigs were pure dress-up, but at least when I wore the purple wig I didn’t feel like a shabby substitute for myself. No, in the purple wig, I felt like I was going to some eurotrash party where I would sip a cocktail, dance like a whirligig, and pretend to be full of ennui until I could no longer maintain the façade. After all, my oncology nurses insisted on calling my chemo drugs a “cocktail.” Taxol and carboplatin are right up there with Grey Goose and Tanqueray, right?
On the way home, I called Dad to tell him the good news: I’d seen Dr. M and gone shopping!
“You spent twenty-eight dollars on a purple wig?” he said.
“Hell yes,” I said. “And I’m going to wear it to chemo tomorrow.”
We—Mom and I—returned home to Manitowish just in time for me to swallow my drugs in preparation for the next day’s chemo. We drove home in the dark, but we knew the route the way some people know the lines on their faces. We knew how the tall glass and brick buildings of Rochester yield to farmland, and farmland to the grand bluffs along the Mississippi, and the bluffs and their winding roads to the dull green of central Wisconsin. In the darkness, our very blood told us we were passing the boulders left by ice-age glaciers, the soft wetlands entangled with alder and hazel, and the low sleepy rivers that slide oxbow by oxbow inexorably toward the south.
How many times have I driven across fields and farms, forests and rivers with my mother? I’m always glad to be home, but never more so than in these last months. It isn’t just this place that spells home for me; it is the people—my parents—my mother. On that terrifying day in May, when I’d passed out on the cold tiles of the dormitory bathroom at my small liberal arts college, it was Mom’s voice that provided my anchor. It was her surety, her calm that assured me I would not die on the spot. “I’m calling security,” she told me after I wavered my way back to bed. My roommate was gone, the halls eerily empty at 9:30 on that Monday morning. I held my cellphone hot against my ear as if it could give me life—it was, after all, my tie to my parents who had given life to me in the first place.
Security came, with one of the deans. They took me to the ER, where I fainted again and woke to starched hospital sheets, white walls, gray floors. You cannot imagine the desolation of an emergency room until you are lying on your back, oxygen pouring into your nostrils, an IV pumping into your arm. Before that day all these things were foreign to me. I hadn’t been in a hospital, as a patient, since the day I was born. I had never imagined what it felt like to be reduced to this: my breath, my heartbeat, blood surging in my veins. This body and the light of the soul are all we have. Yet it is enough. It is so much.
When I was wheeled up to the doctor’s office, when I looked around and saw my mother standing in the door, I was already halfway home.
All chemo drugs are a pain in the ass, but steroids taste the worst. Their effect lingers on the palate, sour and fuzzy, long after they disappear into the bloodstream. This is my preferred method: drop the itsy-bitsy green-colored instruments of gag onto the back of the tongue and then slide them with the teeth into the throat. Swallow. Drink water to dull the aftertaste. Feel a gradual charge spreading throughout the body, like a train or an airplane gearing for take-off. Welcome aboard Flight No. 2 to Chemo Land. This is your local oncology unit speaking. Taxi over to computer. Take silly pictures wearing purple wig and aviator glasses and post them to blog. Execute a jig. Try not to think about chemo. Think of nothing but chemo. Envision body as temple of light, and carboplatin and taxol as equivalents of nectar and ambrosia— the food of the gods!—instead of poisonous chemicals designed to kill all fast-growing cells, not to mention deprive head of beautiful, thick, luxurious hair. Sleep.
A few days after buying the wig, I snipped the remaining wisps of hair off my head. My poor scalp felt tender and it was not an easy process, but when I was done I didn’t burst into tears as I half expected to. Instead, I felt liberated. I looked at my stubbled head in the bathroom mirror, tilting the doors on the medicine cabinet so I could observe myself from all angles.
“Bald is beautiful!” I declared to my audience of one, the dog, lying on the hardwood floor outside the bathroom.
She did not look impressed. When I knelt beside her, she kissed my face and rolled over so I could scratch her white belly. Of course she didn’t care whether I had hair. Nor did she know that my hair, grown out in thick waves to my waist, had been my main vanity as a teenager and the one time I cut it, aged fourteen, I cried.
No, Zoë didn’t care about hair. She loved me and I loved her and that was all that mattered.