Facebook has this function where it takes all of your status updates from the past year and places them on a pre-rendered postcard – I tried it, and didn’t like it. I don’t think the things that we say in a status update are an accurate portrait of what our lives are really like…at least I hope to God they are not. And so instead, I want to give a summary of the past year using a far more meaningful context:
The best way that I can explain what this year was like for my family, and what I have learned from it, is by talking about hair. Let me show you what I mean.
This is Carol’s hair in the early part of last year, after her surgery, but before the start of chemotherapy. She had pretty hair, very much like K’s, very fine and more brown than black. In contrast, S’s hair is like mine, thick and very dark. In this picture we were skating with friends from church on the National Mall, and I’ll never forget that time. It was the very picture of winter fun, people all bundled up with their friends and family, having fun and laughing – I remember helping a stranger’s kid learn how to skate, when I slipped and fell on him and gave him a bloody nose. Awesome.
But what I remember most about that day was being on the phone with a cancer specialist from San Francisco who told me that to give my wife the best chance for survival, we had to terminate her pregnancy and start chemotherapy right away. Any other decision, any delay, would be gambling with her life. I remember my blood running cold with the enormity of what lay before us: do we protect one life over another? Do we dare gamble with things so precious? I remember the statistics she rattled off for me, about survival and recurrence and death, statistics and terms that had meant nothing to me until I realized they were talking about my beautiful wife. Even thinking back to that moment a year after the fact, I still feel that sense of naked terror that I felt that afternoon, an emotion that contrasted so sharply with the joy of everyone else around me.
I think in some way, that moment was an image of what life is like, that we whirl around like mad, working, playing, living, day after day, not unlike skaters on a rink, entirely oblivious to the reality of exactly how fragile and short and precarious our lives really are…and how precious.
When Carol began chemo, her hair started falling out, not all at once, but little by little. I didn’t really notice it myself (being a guy), but she would tell me how fragile her hair had become, how it could be pulled out with just a tug. So rather than go through the long process of her hair falling out in clumps, we decided to pre-empt it by shaving it all off. When the girls saw Carol with a shaved head, they were for some reason delighted! And in a show of solidarity, I also shaved my head…which wasn’t really that big of a deal since I shave my head monthly – here is a picture that S took of me.
I know, I have to enroll her in some photography courses cuz I look much better than that in real life.
But let me tell you about something: first, about courage. Carol never bought a wig, and scarcely ever wore a hat to cover her head. We went out to malls and amusement parks where I could close my eyes and still feel the burning stares of the people around us. At one point, I remember one especially rude woman saw it as her life’s mission to stare as long as possible at Carol’s scalp. So I snarled at her, “It’s CANCER.” That got her to stop staring real quick.
But when I think about the idea of courage, I think about Carol during this period and her steadfastness in living her life on her own terms, instead of the terms of those around her. If I could, I would give her a presidential award for bravery because she deserves it.
Let me also tell you about one more thing: about beauty. When I shaved off her hair, her beauty was not shaved off at the same time, not in the least. I truly found her so beautiful during those months, and began to realize that true beauty is not seen with the eyes, but rather…is perceived, and sensed. It has nothing to do with hair or butts or skin, but radiates from inside people, rather than outside. We forget this because our society is so obsessed on having a beautiful face and perfect body…and not on having a beautiful soul. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, because it has nothing to do with our eyes at all.
This is a picture of my son, J, the day he was born. He had hair, but not nearly as much as his sisters, especially S. And to this day, he doesn’t have much hair on his head, at least for someone who comes from my genetic pool of very hairy Mongols. I sometimes wonder if this is a side effect of the chemotherapy that Carol, and J, endured. Maybe the chemotherapy affected his hair in utero, causing it to fall out? But I don’t think so – he’s just not a hairy boy like I was.
And I want to point out what a miracle this is in itself. If you don’t know, what chemotherapy does is kill rapidly dividing cells, which tend to be cancerous. The problem is that a fetus is in itself a mass of rapidly dividing cells, much like cancer cells. So most doctors assumed that chemotherapy drugs would do tremendous damage to fetuses, which makes sense if you think about it – he was supposed to be premature, and have fused fingers, maybe a cleft palate. But it is becoming clear that this isn’t the case, that as long as these drugs are administered after the first trimester, there are very few side effects to the baby. We can’t see any effects in J, he is a perfectly healthy 3.5 month old baby. Some people think it’s because the placenta somehow knows that these drugs are bad for the baby and acts as a barrier to them – isn’t that amazing?? How very smart of the placenta to know how to do this. It’s almost as if Someone purposefully designed the placenta to protect the baby so perfectly…naw, it’s all just due to random chance and evolution.
And this is Carol’s hair now – as you can see it is growing back very well, and is finally at the point where you would think that Carol just wanted to have short hair and so just cut it that way. I actually like it really short like this, but she’s most likely going to grow it out like before. But the funny thing is that her hair is growing back differently, and is LOT more curly! You can’t see it in this picture, but her hair is actually really wavy, especially in the back. But her hair was pretty straight before! How strange…
I think there is a life lesson in this as well. Like hair, our lives have the ability to recover from difficult, even traumatic moments. That is part of what makes us human, is our resiliency and ability to move on in the worst of situations. And this should be some encouragement, that hair grows back, that our lives grow back, even after something like chemotherapy.
But at the same time, it may not grow back the same as it was before – our lives will be different, somehow affected and transformed by the trials we have endured, like Carol’s hair going from straight to curly. It is perhaps a little naive to believe that it could be any other way. But we should not attempt to go back to the way things were, because things are NOT the way they were before. Instead of living the way that things used to be, we should live the way things are. Returning to normalcy strikes me as a form of regression, a denial of the way that our lives necessarily change and evolve. Much better than stepping back into place is stepping forward instead.
And I close with this final picture, which is a shot of my own hair. Before this year, I used to have jet black hair, and lots of it. But as you can see, my hair has started to turn white. This picture also led me to believe that I was going bald, but Carol assured me that it was just the angle of the shot. I took several dozen more shots of my hair after that, and thankfully, she was right. Whew!
But this is what this past year has done to me – IT LITERALLY TURNED MY HAIR WHITE. I feel so much older than before, like a 40 or 50 year old trapped in a 31 year old body. After all, how many 31 year olds do you know have three kids, a wife who has had a brush with breast cancer, and pastor a church solo? More of an older man’s life, I would think. Most days I feel fine, but there are days where I sense this deep weariness, like this year has left me a shell – sounds dramatic, but that’s how I feel at times. So yes, hair grows back after difficulties, and that is a blessing, but those difficulties still take an enormous toll on us. It has on me.
But to be honest, I would much rather be a 50 year old in a 31 year old body, than the other way around. Every time I read the news, I hear about older men and women looking and acting like young adults, getting surgery, strutting around in bikinis, getting married and remarried and remarried and remarried. The zeitgeist of our time seems to involve old people acting like kids, and kids acting like porn stars. So God knows that our world could use some more young people with old souls because there are too many Hugh Hefners up in this joint.
So, if I have learned anything from this year, it is this:
Hair grows back. It may grow back curly and white, but it grows back. And the focus of life after that point is not to lament how different your hair looks now, to dye and straighten it to how it used to be, but to figure out how to live the best life you can with curly white hair.
…Or something to that effect. Have a wonderful new year, everyone!