It’s March 1st !!
The temperature is -8 Celsius, the sun is blindingly bright, there’s little wind, the sky is blue and I feel that perhaps this winter has entered its final phase.
I’d like that. I’d like to be able to go out in the car and not worry about dangerous roads and a driver’s side door lock that keeps freezing. I’d love to be able to walk around outside without having to endure the shivers that are now a conditioned response.
I look forward to being able to live outside…not cooped up (though this is a lovely house to be trapped in). It’ll feel so good to be able to go for walks again, any time it suits me; feel my heart pumping as I stroll in this hilly village, experiencing, I hope, the reversal of some of the atrophy of my musculature and cardiovascular health; feeling wind on my face that doesn’t cause me pain or muscle spasms.
I eagerly await life with open windows that let in birdsong, the wind’s sibilance, the odd barking dog, the scent of thaw and of plant life.
Just this morning, sitting at a favourite breakfast place with Christian, I still had my 5 FU infuser attached to my port-a-cath with its long thin transparent tubing, sitting inside the fanny pack that I had once again tied just below my bustline. In the restaurant, I still had to wear the white cotton gloves (that I squeezed into my fat winter gloves before heading out) that protect my hands just enough that the burning, relentless pain I’m experiencing, on this second day after chemo, is manageable; so that I could lift the porcelain teacup to my mouth without dropping it, and could manage the pressure of a fork and knife against the tissue of my hands.
I was there with Christian, who was so handsome—dressed to play a snazzier role than usual at the McGill Simulation Centre—and we talked and it was lovely (it’s always lovely). But I was aware, the whole time, of being the woman with the cropped white hair, white gloves, and full frontal fanny pack.
This is where cancer is taking me these days. That is: how do I appear to the world? Do I give off an aura of sickness? Do people see me, or do they see a woman with cancer? Or both? Does this bother me? Is it possible to walk around in all of my chemo splendour and still feel like the woman I was before all of this came about? Or simply still feel like a woman?
Every day, I’m confronted with the mirror. I see, in my face, the effects of Cortef (cortisone I take in pill form every morning for complicated but common reasons when a person is receiving chemotherapy): irregular darkening, discoloration and puffiness of my skin–with swollen eyelids. I see chapped lips, which are a side effect of 5 FU. I see lashless, browless blue eyes that are red and often burn (again, thanks a lot, 5 FU), that still pop because of the shock of delicate white hair that frames the whole mess.
It would be so much harder if I were in my thirties or even my forties. I’m sure of it. To have been stripped of everything we associate with beauty, so suddenly, in such life-threatening circumstances, at such a vital time in my life…I feel sure that it would have undone me. As a woman. As a lover. As a female teacher, walking into conference rooms full of male workers. But ultimately, it’s for me, the mother of three growing sons, that it would have been…unimaginable. Hell on earth. I was spared this threat of separation from my children, and they have grown into men, and my personal losses now seem like…the mildest of tectonic shocks, in comparison.
At age sixty, I’ve been easing myself through aging’s losses and gains. We forget the latter, but I’m happily embracing those—the timing being what it is. The beauty of an older person is there, within, and can also, thankfully, be beyond sexualisation.
So, to return to my questions:
How do I appear to the world? Winter has allowed me to hide. Big coat, big scarf, tuque, sun glasses. A kind of laying-low. Zero feedback from the world has been just what I needed.
Do I give off an aura of sickness? I really hope not. Even at the CHUM, I walk tall and try to smile and make eye contact with everyone. I try to walk with grace, not fragility. I put blush on my cheeks, colour on my lips. I own my white hair. There’s just no other way. I try to radiate vitality, if only for every other patient in the waiting areas and chemo rooms where we cross paths. Because we are mirrors held up to each other.
Do people see me, or do they see a woman with cancer? If the white fuzz on my head is given a chance to keep growing, then the chemo look will fade, and in its place, what people should see is an old lady—that is, a woman with white hair. A bit of blond over it—à la Helen Mirren— is tempting, but vanity? Honestly? I think that ship has sailed. I’m sixty and I’m ALIVE. I’d like to keep those bases covered. Forget the rest. Just smile and be kind and be good to people. That ought to do it.
Or both? Entirely possible and A-okay with me. Cancer has altered me permanently. I will never again be the pre-diagnosed Michelle. Illness and the person I am are of a piece. Perceptive people will see both and, I hope, love both.
Does this bother me? Less and less. I hope to have shed all of the nonsense of hang-ups and fear of being judged or dismissed based on my appearance or some diminishing idea of what a woman is or should be, or what a human being is or should be.
Is it possible to walk around in all of my chemo splendour and still feel like the woman I was before all of this came out?
No. Not for me, because my cancer was diagnosed days after I separated from my husband of 38 years, and moved away from Pointe-Claire, my home town since I was three years old. There has been so much change that shedding my skin doesn’t begin to describe all of the losses, gains and transformations that have taken place in my life. And yet…I thought I would be scribbling a big X over Eros and romance, but, to my great surprise, even as altered as I am, I find myself thinking about things like skin to skin contact, and the beautiful intimacy that is possible between partners.
Several years ago, the Montreal Gazette featured a piece about a young married couple who had discovered that year that he had an aggressive type of leukemia.. He was so sick. I think that he was at the point of preparing for a bone marrow transplant. But this wasn’t what the article was about. The thing about this couple is that they chose to share with the world the fact that sexual intimacy had become their primary mode of expression of love and fear and need to be together. They were open and unabashed.
I remember wondering at the time how that could be so. Wouldn’t the ravages of leukemia change your relationship with your body?
Today, I think it’s a remarkably beautiful response to an otherwise catastrophic reality, and a reminder that I still have so much to learn.