[ed note: A few weeks back I made a joke about this week's theme being hats. Marsi White wrote this essay and sent it on in. It's a really great piece, but it doesn't fit the theme. I was going to hold it for another week, but I figured what could be more nearly perfect than a great essay that doesn't fit the theme? That, combined with how dumb I am for not making the new themes more conspicuous. Enjoy. - JG]
Hats. I own a plethora of hats in all shapes and sizes, in all colors and fabrics. Hats that keep my head warm; hats that help me hide from the sun; hats that I sleep in at night; even a striking, red pompadour that I wear when I want to sport a little attitude. One of my very favorites is a modified baseball-style hat in a black and white houndstooth fabric with an embroidered and “bedazzled” breast cancer symbol across the front of the hat and the brim. It was given to me by two of my very favorite girlfriends who found it in a boutique while shopping. The hat feels more like a stylish accessory rather than something worn to cover my mostly bald head.
So, it was no surprise that when my mom took me to Wal-Mart to shop, I wore this hat. I remember the day clearly. It was sunny outside. I had completed a chemotherapy treatment the week before and I was just then feeling well enough to venture out of my house. We wandered through the store, selecting our wares and checking things off my list. We had just made it back to the front of the store and were preparing to check out. It was then that a woman approached.
The woman was small in stature. I remember thinking that she looked like she had just rolled out of bed, though her clothes seemed clean. She had short hair and was middle aged. As she approached, she reminded me of a puppy, looking for some attention, drawn to me like a magnet by the breast cancer symbol on my hat.
She told her breast cancer story in what seemed like five seconds. I was not feeling well and did not want to encourage her, but I was polite. Her conversation was going well, me not saying more than two words, until she took off my hat, unprompted and said, “How long have you been in chemo?”
I was completely bald at that point of my treatment. I was only showing my head at short intervals that usually revolved around some sort of hot flash (another story all together) or shower time. Not only that, but I hated the breeze on my head. It freaked me out a little. Not that I declined to show my head when asked by friends or other appropriate times. I just preferred to do so in a private setting. Not in the middle of Wal-Mart. And certainly not for a stranger.
In her defense, there is a true sisterhood among breast cancer patients. We share stories, we share advice, we share meals and sometimes even share wigs, clothes and bras. In addition, there is something that you lose when you are expected to talk about your breasts all of the time: modesty. Topics that were once viewed as “TMI” are suddenly acceptable dinner conversation. These two phenomenons were an obvious influence in this woman’s need to see my bald head.
Still, as the woman gregariously exposed my head to the fluorescent light of Wal-Mart, I was feeling none of those things. Shock gave way to immediate thoughts of anger and resentment. My hat was my safety net. My hat and this one in particular, is what reminded me that I was still a hip, cool chick. Someone peering underneath it, gave away my disguise and took away a piece of my armor that helped me to keep smiling even when all that I knew to be beautiful about myself was slowly being taken away.
However, I felt the need to appease this woman. Rude as her actions were, I could tell she was lonely. I could tell that the bond of her breast cancer sisters might be her only support system. I thought, “Karma”. Through out my struggle with breast cancer, my golden rule was that my direct and indirect actions played a role in my healing process. I felt that displaying my distaste for this woman’s actions would hurt her feelings, and more specifically, my choosing to not hurt her feelings created positive energy that would ultimately come back to me in some other form.
So, when she removed my hat, I just smiled and answered, “I have been in chemo for four months.” I closed the conversation as quickly as I could and sought the comfort of home. Done and done. Her feelings were spared. I shed a tear and got over mine. She left feeling good about herself. She probably even thought she helped me in some way.
Currently, I am a patient with a “history of breast cancer” and almost a full head of hair. The cancer is gone; the hats are not. They sit in my closet waiting for the day that I will pass them on to another breast cancer survivor. I know that day is coming, but in the interim, in a strange way, I am comforted just to know that they are waiting for me, should I need an extra piece of armor for whatever reason.