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.
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.