One month bald: The walls outside & the light within
“People are like stained glass windows; they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within.”
– Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
Many years ago, my brother asked me to picture a mutual friend of ours.
After I had her image firmly in mind, David asked, “Do you see her scars?”
I did not. Her face had seemed perfectly reconstructed in my mind before he asked; in light of his question, I felt ashamed, as if I’d been caught in the act of surreptitiously editing a work not my own.
My brother’s take was different. “You don’t picture it for the same reason you don’t really see it when you’re with her. It’s irrelevant. Her beauty shines from within, not from the specific arrangement of features on her face.”
The conversation was much more extensive than this, and my brother’s overall approach much more nuanced, but this is the part that has stuck with me. It was the part on my mind after I shaved my head for St. Baldrick’s last month.
I expected to be a wreck during the actual shaving. I also expected to be mildly chagrined by how baldness emphasized my already prominent forehead. What I didn’t expect was that I’d feel more beautiful than I ever had before.
I also didn’t expect the staring.
The day after I shaved my head, I caught a couple dozen—yes, a couple dozen—adults staring at me with eyes wide and mouths agape. I felt confident and gorgeous with my newly fuzzy head, so it was easy for me to smile back at strangers even while my discomfiture grew.
I wondered: What if I had lost my hair to cancer treatments? What if I were struggling to feel beautiful and strong in the face of the fight of my life? A fight for my life?
My stomach knotted at these thoughts, yet despite my initial chagrin, I quickly stopped noticing the stares. I even forgot that I’d shaved my head. A neighbor asked, “What did you do?!” following which I launched into an explanation about how she’d heard my son, Li’l D, screaming because I’d forced him to get off the elevator. (The nerve!)
My neighbor gestured to my hair and said, “I mean, to your hair!”
I laughed and said I’d had it shaved for a charity. With her hand to her heart, my neighbor said, “Thank God. I thought you were going through chemo.”
Once in a while, though, someone’s attention is so obvious it’s impossible not to notice. In these cases, I’ve continued my strategy of simply smiling back, an astonishingly effective means to get someone to stop staring.
Out to get lunch in the middle of a recent workday, I caught a woman staring at me with a mixture of sadness, dismay and pity so blatant, it totally disarmed me.
After a moment, I smiled at her and she looked away. For about two seconds. She then resumed staring, looking away again for only as long as I gazed and smiled directly at her.
The scenario played through my head for hours afterward. I wished I’d piped up, as recommended by blogger Counting Caballeros, “Thank you for staring. I shaved my head to raise awareness for childhood cancer, and since I obviously have your undivided attention, would you like your donation to pediatric cancer research to be cash, check, or charge?”
I don’t know what it’s like to fight cancer firsthand. I don’t know what that encounter would have felt like if I were fighting cancer right now. All I have is my imagination, and in my imagination, the feeling was horrible.
The feeling wasn’t about the hair. It was about what hair, or the lack of it, seemed to automatically represent: the presence of illness. The reminder of human mortality.
I felt an invisible wall of “otherness” being built around me as I recalled the emotions reflected in that stare, and those I witnessed right after I shaved my head.
I wondered: Would I be so different if I were fighting cancer? Would I somehow be less human, or less worthy of the common courtesies afforded someone with a full head of hair? Or would I still be me, Deb, just trying to enjoy a bite of lunch without being reminded that I’m not only fighting cancer but that I’m also now set apart in the eyes of those around me?
I can’t go back in time. I can’t redo that lunchtime encounter. But the next time I experience this, I’m going to say something. I don’t know what, exactly, or if it will be inspired by the above recommendation from Counting Caballeros, but something. Something that reminds others that I am human. That we are all human, whether tall or short, skinny or round, black or white, bald or hairy, fighting cancer or cancer-free.
And now, here, I’m going to ask you to say something if you find yourself caught in the act of staring. If you’re curious, or concerned, or just want to say, “I’m sorry, but you’re so radiant, it’s impossible to look elsewhere,” please do. Say hi. Embrace the awkwardness, for words like these connect even as they potentially embarrass us. Instead of building invisible walls between people, they are part of our building bridges of understanding.
I’m glad my neighbor asked what happened to my hair. Her words opened a dialog that brightened my day. In both asking and the way she asked, I felt that no answer I gave would’ve scared her or inspired her to treat me differently, apart from perhaps to share words of support.
If the thought of talking to a stranger terrifies you, consider offering a smile. The power of a smile is enormous.
It’s that smile that shows the light within, and all those beautiful lights within reflected outward that brighten the world for all.
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.