How a Wig Made Me Love My Baldness

I began sheltering in place long before the virus, the day I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At fifty-four, I went from being an active, organic food-eating, open water-swimming, yoga-loving person who rarely had occasion to go to the doctor, to someone requiring a myriad of medications, appointments, and hospital visits.

It started after a swim in the San Francisco Bay. The waters were warm by bay standards—sixty degrees—and the current calm. It was perfect, except that when I got home, I felt a tenderness under my arm. I gently explored the area with my fingertips and came across something round and firm. Two biopsies later, I learned I had lymphoma. It wasn’t the indolent or slow-progressing type; it was the aggressive version. The kind that required multi-night hospital stays in order to administer a continuous four-day chemo drip.

After each treatment, my wife, Susan, brought me home and we sheltered in place. It took a while to get used to this way of life—scrubbing fruits and vegetables free of bacteria, constantly washing my hands, giving friends virtual hugs instead of real ones. And losing my hair. Well, technically I didn’t lose it so much as I took it off before I lost it.

I sat on the back deck of our Oakland home while Susan circled me with hair clippers. Batches of the salt and pepper hair dropped onto the newspaper. I’ve had all kinds of short styles, especially in my younger dyke days—bleached and spiky, buzzed on the sides and back—but this was by far the shortest. My hand moved across the stubble as I discovered dips and contours I had never felt before.

It didn’t last. Two weeks after starting chemotherapy, tiny hairs began dropping into the sink. The places where I still had hair were thinning too. A month later I was bald.

I thought about getting a wig, a neon pink bob maybe, but something always stopped me. I wanted to open to the experiences lymphoma was giving me and follow my body’s lead. Every morning I donned a 1940s style men’s pork pie hat instead. I felt like an old school gangster or a jazz musician back in the day.

But going bald wasn’t always easy.

The world isn’t used to seeing bald women. Men, on the other hand, have full permission. It’s a look. It’s handsome. Fashionable even. Not so for a woman. I got plenty of stares anytime I took off my hat. Cancer-related baldness shows differently. There’s no shadow of imminent hair beneath the skin. No darkness to signal that hair could grow if allowed to. It’s paler, more vulnerable looking.

I gradually got used to having no hair. It was me. Honest and real. Still, I never completely shook off my self-consciousness. Sometimes I kept my hat on when my head felt overheated because I didn’t want to deal with how people might respond. I never left the house without my hat.

Wigs are an individual decision, especially if you’re a woman. I understand. Cancer puts us through so much, if having a wig brings lightness or helps you feel good, then why not? I wasn’t always a hundred percent comfortable with my baldness but it was still the right decision for me. My truth.

Until it wasn’t. Until I found myself inside a wig shop in downtown Oakland.

With a friend in tow, I headed past the extensions and eyelash products to the back where a small collection of Afro and straight-haired wigs sat on white Styrofoam heads. I was betraying my baldness, the stance I had lived and believed in for nearly six months. I was about to turn fifty-five and was almost done with chemo. I needed to break out.

I scanned the options before me. There was a full and cascading Bonnie Raitt style wig and a short copper Tina Turner. Then I spotted a crimson rocker wig with disheveled bangs. I put it on and was transformed. It didn’t look anything like my real hair and yet it felt so me.

I bought it and wore it for the rest of the day. I felt happy. I had hair! It wasn’t real or serious but that was okay. I received zero stares from strangers and felt no inner bald-shaming. The power of hair coursed through me. I went to my local tea shop, to the public pool to swim, to the store and felt alive and unfettered. Some friends laughed when they saw me but others seemed slightly taken aback. Was it because they had stood with me on the courageous path of no-hair and now here I was thumbing my nose at my own fierceness? I had to admit it felt exhilarating to hide from my baldness. To erase it even.

Susan laughed when I came through the door. She got the fun part but said she still thought I was more beautiful without it. I loved her for saying that.

I put on the wig the next day but something had changed. I pushed the bangs around. It didn’t feel the same. I was honoring lymphoma, following my body into healing and allowing myself to be vulnerable and to show it to the world. I took the wig off and hung it on the end of a bookcase.

I was bald again. More badass than ever.

 

Hair

Before my first chemo treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, when I knew my hair would start falling out, I went to my hairstylist. I wanted to feel in charge of what I had little control over—cancer.  She gave me a short cut and for a couple of weeks, it was the new me. Completely buzzed on the side with a shaped and cool bit up top. But once I started treatments, my hair changed. It was almost imperceptible because it was still there but it didn’t stand up the same way, springing up and out from the rooted follicles below. It drooped. I pulled and it gave way. I started to think that my hair follicles had gone dormant. Like seeds, they were waiting for more favorable times.

My wife, Susan, got out a buzzer and we went onto our shaded back deck. We found a slant of sun and I grabbed a chair. Susan draped a cloth around my shoulders. She turned on the buzzer and gently began trimming off the hair on the sides and top. I closed my eyes, feeling the tickle of the buzzer against my skin. When she was finished, I reached my hand to my head and felt what I had never felt before: the tenderest of skin, a hidden part of myself. My fingertips moved across rises and dips. The skin bunched slightly in some places and pulled smoothly in others. It was an unchartered wonder.

I love exploring the top of my head now. My hand moves up, taking in the bony contours of my skull. I fan out my fingers, the whole half of my head cradled in my open palm, and feel my underneath self, soft and vulnerable. The deep me.

 

 

 

Chemotherapy

My first days of cancer treatment were tender and profound. I had an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which necessitated hospital stays to deliver the medication. I got through these treatments by being with my body and noticing what it had to say to me. This post is about one of my earliest experiences with this process.

…Night. I wake to pee and look toward the bathroom, the light left on so I can spot the fluorescent glow of it from under the closed door. I swing my legs to the floor. My bare feet feel around for shoes. I slide them into the plastic Crocs then look for the two IV lines that lead to the PIC line in my right arm. I lift both lines and carefully hold them away from my body so that I can stand and grab ahold of the IV pole. I turn and unplug the pumps from the wall. The extension cords are thick and I have to tug hard. I pull them free and secure them across the top of the pump. I grab the metal pole and walk. As I walk, I smell a faint acridness.

I stop and check the tubing for leaks but there are none. It is coming from me, this new smell. It is like sweat. But sharper.

I get to the bathroom, which is overbright. I make sure the tubing doesn’t touch the floor or get caught on anything. After I’m done, I roll the IV pole over the door jam back into the darkness of my room. I close the door and plug the cords back into their socket. I release myself onto the bed, into the navy blue flannel sheets my wife bought me, their softness her caress.

I’m not in any pain and sleep for several hours. Whenever I turn over, I follow the tubing with my fingers, eyes closed, gently threading it away from my body so that it rests above me, far from my twisting arms.

In the morning, I sit by the window and listen to the sing-song of the pump that delivers my healing. It is like an old windy accordion pushing the liquid toward my heart. Over-sized clouds stretch across thin ribbons of blue sky. A square of sun falls onto my lap. I am with you, I say to myself. I am here.

 

Flower Dust

It was a warm afternoon in early September when I arrived at the grocery store. Instead of sitting at home, waiting for a call from my primary doctor to tell me the results of a biopsy, I went to the Berkeley Bowl, one of the best health food stores in the Bay Area.

A few weeks prior, one of my lymph nodes had become sore and enlarged. I went right into my primary doctor who in turn sent me to have an ultrasound. The doctor who examined the ultrasound said she couldn’t say what was causing the enlargement. “It could be breast cancer, lymphoma or an infection,” she said.

Two bad choices and one benign. The benign option was the more common but I decided my result wasn’t going to be benign.

She sent me in for a biopsy and after this, I was told it would be three to five days before results would be known. My primary doctor would telephone me with the news.

One day passed, then two, then three and no call. Then the weekend came and went. Finally, my doctor messaged me that she would know the results by the end of the day.

That’s when I drove to Berkeley Bowl. I needed something. Maybe chocolate-covered almonds. I arrived, grabbed a plastic basket and started toward the almond section when my eye caught on a bucket of bright orange Asiatic Lilies, my mom’s favorite flowers. They always seemed to fill a vase in our house. She painted them constantly. Sometimes in watercolor. Other times with acrylic paints. Only she didn’t call them Asiatic Lilies. She called them Tiger Lilies.

I chose two bunches and placed them in my basket. It didn’t take long to see this wasn’t going to work. Their long stems almost immediately toppled them out. Instead of finding a cart, I clasped them to my side with one arm and kept shopping. I careened around getting arugula and cucumbers and my coveted chocolate-covered almonds, trying not to lose too many blooms in the process.

Then I hurried to the checkout and left.

A few stems broke off in transit but mostly the lilies made it home. It was a relief to arrange them in a tall clear vase that offered plenty of room to stretch out. I needed to gather myself so I stepped into the bathroom to look at my face and witness this moment. Would it be breast cancer, lymphoma or a simple bacterial infection?

Then I noticed something on my t-shirt. It was right over the place where I had had the biopsy. I looked closer and saw a smear of bright orange pollen exactly over the spot where my swollen and aching lymph node lay and where the biopsy needle had entered.

That’s when I felt my mother’s presence. She had walked this road years ago when I was a teenager. She had lived with breast cancer and its treatments. I saw the dusting over my hurt area, over the dark node that held the mystery, that held what I didn’t yet know, and I felt her protection. Of that place and of me.

Tears slid down my face.

When I finally got the call and learned that it was not breast cancer, but non-Hodgkins lymphoma and that I had caught it early and had a strong prognosis, I felt her protection more. I walk this path with her beside me now. Closer than before.

Still

On the thirty-seventh anniversary of my mother’s death, I left the house when it was still dark to swim in the swells and swift current of the San Francisco Bay. After I had left, a deer collided into our fence, breaking it and scattering posts across the walk. Then it upended rocks from the wall, crushed the stems of the blooming Chinese red lantern flowers and shrugged off huge chunks of bark from the rotted redwood stump. At least that’s what I think happened. Maybe it wasn’t a deer. All I know is that something broke through, trampling the garden and rearranging the earth. Was it  my old grief? Rocking through me still, careening forever across the repaired life I have constructed?

Rising

Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as supreme court justice despite being accused of sexually attacking at least three women. Despite being a political operative. Despite his rash and biased behavior during the hearing. Despite all the loud objections. But it’s these objections, the breaking of silence, that matters most. All year, women and men have stood up and said, “This happened to me” and “I believe her.” We shattered silence in elevators and on the senate floor. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford didn’t stay quiet. Neither did Deborah Ramirez. None of us stayed in our places like we were supposed to, so don’t think we’re about to start. Get ready. We are rising.

Our Beautiful Buried Selves

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how submerged I felt growing up – the fact that I was gay but not ready to be out, that my father had a secret job we never talked about (he was in the CIA), and the trauma of losing my mother to breast cancer in my junior year. It all left me numb and lost. I had a huge backlog of feelings that I needed to get to but no idea how to get to them. When I look back on this submerged girl self, I see someone waiting to heal, waiting to find the shore of wholeness. A few years into college, I started to see a therapist, someone who helped me learn the strange language of naming feelings and understanding myself. As I get ready to go to my high school reunion, I know it may feel strange to be back at the place I felt so lost. As l step onto campus with its manicured lawns, I’ll think of  the girl who labored beneath her mask of “everything is fine.” She got past this mask eventually, got to her real feelings and named them, but she is the one who got me through those hard times and who got me to the beauty and gift of now. In fact, I use her strength and fortitude everyday. And everyday I’m grateful.

Owl Cafe

A couple of years ago when I was in Tokyo, I heard about these places called “Owl Cafes.” I thought they would be peaceful rooms where people sat and drank tea and read books. Owls would be sitting on perches preening themselves or staring and relaxing. Somehow I imagined that they would be someone’s well cared for pet and that they would be accustomed to living in the city, brought there by some odd circumstance. My wife and I researched one of these cafes, checked the address and then set out on foot to find it. After getting lost and then being personally guided by a very helpful woman, we arrived at a sterile looking building and stepped inside. The owls were there and they were beautiful. There were a bunch of them.  there were barn owls and burrowing owls, and types I had never seen before. They sat on perches or in boxes but instead of chilling or sleeping, they were busy. Trainers prompted them to fly from their perch and land on a person’s arm. Everyone wanted a photograph with an owl. It wasn’t the romantic scene I had imagined. But in that year of wandering the planet, unsettling events happened every day, things I didn’t see coming. Like the Owl Café. But there was also usually something magnificent or unexplained within these situations too. I stood there, taking in the craziness of the Owl Café, grappling with my mixed feelings at being there, when I noticed an owl sitting perfectly still by a window. It sat by itself sort of looking down at the city below. It seemed removed from everything but at the same time oddly in charge. The wizened supervisor. And so here was that explainable thing. It was the way the owl occupied its own space, the way it sat anchored by something I couldn’t see, and completely unencumbered by the strangeness of the activities around it. Even though it was surrounded by an enormous city, it remained singular, a thing unshakable in its wildness. it never forgot itself. I think of this owl now, whenever I feel swallowed by  chaos or strangeness. I think of it sitting still and quiet its talons gripping the wooden perch as snow falls on the streets below.

Finishing

For the past 12 years, I’ve been writing a book about secrets – my spy dad’s and mine. Every day that I wrote, I was immersed in feelings. Love. Sadness. Fear. Lots of that. But I just kept doing it – kept sitting with memories, doubts, and questions. I had so many questions. About my dad and the CIA, about coups and dictatorships and a million other things. I researched, traveled, interviewed people (including my dad), and wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. The pile of journals in this photo represents just a fraction of the pages I filled. This project feels like a lifetime. It engulfed me in a crazy mix of uncertainty and hope, and it made my father extraordinarily real to me, realer even than growing up, when I would find him eating Doritos and watching SNL. Now the book is done and I am at a loss. You could call it “letting go” or “transitioning” but I don’t know what it is or what to call it. I just know that I’m going through it. Still, I marvel that I did it – wrote into material that took me through my mother’s death again and again, took me into my fears about speaking out and breaking the spy family code of silence, and took me through so much human sadness. My own and the world’s. But what stuns me most is the way writing became its own path and how the path it created led me to healing. It is what I hoped for but was never sure of when I started 12 years ago. I am finally here – wherever here is. It feels like a miracle. The starting and the finishing. And everything in between.

The Backbone of Everything

As Aleppo falls, I think of an old Tibetan man who kept refilling my glass with buttery yak tea at a café in downtown Lasa. I think of so many of the people I met while traveling last year: the construction worker in Myanmar, who transported a stack of bricks on her head; the swimmer near Havana, who said, “I’m not a communist. I’m Cuban;” the driver in Swaziland, who, despite not wanting to become ‘just another taxi driver,’ did so in order to lift his whole family out of poverty; the hotel employee in Ho Chi Minh City who fixed Susan’s cane in an hour, so that her shoulder no longer ached every time she leaned into it.

The modest and generous people I met while traveling were the rule and not the exception. Meanwhile, their governments varied. Some were repressive, others neglectful. It was the rare one that seemed to listen and respond to its people’s needs. But I can only guess at this as an outsider. What I don’t have to guess at is where each country’s true wealth lay. That was easy: its people. Every day people were the ones who ran things and grew things and fixed things.

And so, as the Syrian government and its allies bomb those who grow things and fix things and paint things and heal things, I send a prayer for assistance. It is a prayer of love and survival too, and of this truth: You can never be bombed away or felled because you are the core of the world, the beauty of it, the backbone of everything.