You Look MAHvellous

The rains have set in, but still two hummingbirds come to dine, and these two actually shared the feeder rather than picking a fight with each other. (Hummingbirds are beautiful, but they are not kind to one another.) These are Anna’s hummingbirds — a male with the brilliant red head, whom we named Robin Hood, and a more modest-colored female.  Anna’s don’t necessarily migrate for the winter, and I’m looking forward to keeping their company. The other four that appeared over the summer, Fred and his compatriots, are Rufous hummingbirds, which fly to warmer places to wait out this dreariness.

The Popsicle Report:  Today’s flavor: chocolate pudding. Those same aged tubes I saw last week are still there.  So I opted for the pudding in the refrigerator.

Leaves still cling to the huge tree outside the infusion center.  Today was infusion #5 of the Taxol — 7 more to complete the total 24 weeks of chemotherapy.  The process was almost too routine.  As I drove over to the center, I felt as if I were going off to work, the way the kids go off to school.  Blood draw, wait for results (white count 13, 2 points above the normal range, with two home injections of the Neupogen last week), drink my green tea. It’s as John O’Donohue remarks in his short essay “The Question Holds the Lantern”: “Eventually, even the strangest things become absorbed into the routine of the daily mind with its steady geographies of endurance, anxiety, and contentment.” The essay describes exquisitely the transformation a person goes through when confronted with a crisis. You can find it on O’Donohue’s beautiful website: http://www.johnodonohue.com/reflections/.

And then, as often happens, I recall why I’m there in the Barcalounger listening to the beeping of IV machines. Their coded alarms distinctly remind me of my teenage days spent working at McDonald’s, learning the particular squawks of the french fry vat, the bun toaster and the fish fryer. I instantly try to shut out the thought of why I’m sitting there by distracting myself.  Robert Schimmel comments on this need for distraction in his book, “Cancer on $5 a Day.” That need likely applies to all of us when confronted with something larger than we are.  When you’re on a course not of your choosing with no alternative, distraction is essential.

So today’s selections from my iPod ranged from Sting, back when he was with The Police, to Tony Bennett, to old Elton John and Paul Simon (always a favorite), to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” with that gorgeous cello line, to Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” and a little “Bungle in the Jungle” from Jethro Tull.

No new or different symptoms from the Taxol so far, though it does seem to be aggravating the area under my left arm that was affected by surgery — an area of numb hardness that increases and decreases based on my level of activity.  One therapist thinks it’s the effect of Taxol on the nervous system.  Perhaps I should immerse this portion of my body in the ice-water bath during infusion, but I don’t think the infusion staff would approve of that.

This morning, as I was getting ready for the day, I ran a comb over my head, just to reminisce.  I could almost feel the weight and pull of my hair as it used to be, even though what’s there now is just some white fuzz.  But at least the fuzz blows in the breeze, as I discovered while zipping around the house with a bare head. (Despite what the numbers say about my low red cell count, my energy level is better. Amazing how the body adapts.)

I’ve gotten quite used to the head coverings, and have quite a collection of them now. Hats (both practical and silly), scarves, and longer pieces I can wrap into turbans. Sometimes I forget I have one on.  If I’m in a place where I’m anonymous, the headcovering poses no problem.  Downtown, many people look a lot stranger than I do in my headwrap. I don’t have any piercings or tattoos, so even a turban looks rather conservative. Someone told me that I could even wear the green metallic wig my mother sent in certain parts of town and actually get hit on.

But a problem arises when I’m in smaller, familiar settings.  A few weeks ago, during the handshake of peace during church service, an older gentleman shook my hand in the regular fashion, saying “peace be with you.”  And then, for a fraction of a second, he put his other hand on top of mine and said, “God bless you.”  And suddenly, I was jerked back to my reality and had trouble maintaining my composure.  I know he meant well, but for just a few moments I had forgotten that reality.  My headcovering gave me away.

And that’s one of the side effects they can’t tell you about at the doc’s office — the response you may get from others.  Some people never notice, some do but don’t know what to say, some jump in full force, change their tone of voice, and look at you sadly.  Some wait for you to bring up the topic because they’re not sure if you want to talk about it.  Interactions can turn into awkward dances, with neither of us in the dance knowing which way to step for fear of offense.

A comment I hear often is “You look good.”  These words are offered with the best of intentions, and I do appreciate them (though I was never one to worry too much about how I looked — as my mother can attest). But then I find myself wondering — did I *not* look good before? A couple people have asked me what might be the appropriate way to respond.  I can’t speak for anyone else (cancer and chemotherapy are such vastly different experiences for each person), but consider this: If you want to comment on my appearance, don’t just tell me I look good.  Take a page from Billy Crystal and say “You look MAAHH-vellous!”

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