I was sitting in the car in the Target parking lot. It was springtime, and in addition to the usual business of running a household of six, I had a graduation and a religious celebration coming up: there was a lot to do, and I had a long list. We have talked about the magic of Target before, and how you can find everything there, so you would think that I was in exactly the right place.
The trouble was, I could not bring myself to get out of the car. That happened sometimes, in those crazy, early days of My Life With Breast Cancer, usually because I was once again doing the ugly cry that seemed to come on while driving, and I would need to sit with my omnipresent and ginormous box of Kleenex and let it all out until I could pull myself together.
But on this day, it was not that I was crying. It was that I was bald.
They said I had an aggresive kind of cancer, so in response to that “aggression”, I did what governments and cancer patients alike sometimes do, and declared war. I envisioned myself a great warrior, a fighter so impassioned and confident—and please, oh please, God, successful —that she would wear the battle wounds of baldness and breastlessness and God knows what else like badges of honor. I would channel the ancient Amazon warriors and the modern-day female Marines, and in doing so become like those brave and wise women who fight to survive. I shaved my head, which helped to see myself as something of a bad-ass, and prepared to deploy, to dig in, to detonate.
Sitting in the car, I realize that this transformation has totally not happened. I do not feel courageous and invincible; I feel naked and insecure, and can only watch with envy and embarrassment as normal life goes on. It is like I am in the sixth grade again, wearing my hot plaid wool school uniform in humiliation because it is shorts day and I have forgotten, and now am standing out in front of the much-cooler girls I aim (always) to impress.
Only this time, I somehow got a disease and now I am the only one at Target who is wearing a bald alien head and a ball cap that says Life Is Good, so that people will think I have a Positive Attitude, and also because I could not find one that said Life Is Really Scary and Altogether Uncertain. And I am sitting in my car, watching all the healthier and presumably happier moms, who remembered to not get cancer and to keep their hair, be-bopping into the store in their gym clothes, their ponytails casually pulled into hair ties. They are so lucky to have hair, I think; they do not even know how lucky they are. I feel inferior, and even a little ashamed. I do not feel at all like a badass or an Amazon. Certainly not like a Marine.
Most people know that chemotherapy for breast cancer causes hair loss, which means that everyone at Target is going to know that I have a serious and life-threatening illness. It isn’t the vanity of losing your hair; it’s the vulnerability. Not only does such therapy strip away our crowning glory leaving us exposed; it goes ahead and tells everybody. And if you happen to have a preschooler in tow, and a bunch of kids already at school, everyone who runs into you will also going to know that life is scary, and altogether uncertain; because of this, they may avoid you, or worse yet, feel sorry for you, their pity cutting like a knife. I’ve been sicker and I’ve been more afraid, but I do not think I have ever in my adult life felt more vulnerable than this day, in the car, in the Target parking lot.
If you want to really get a bunch of survivors going, tell them how courageous they are: they will argue with you until they are blue in the face. “I am NOT!” they will insist, “I was terrified.” Amazing women who live, love, and find joy beyond or along with a diagnosis and ongoing treatment will tell you simply: “I just do what I have to do. I have no choice.”
I think we get confused about courage; I think we always have a choice. Courage is not the absence of fear, or a perpetually positive attitude, or a certainty about the outcome. Some days it is just the smallest thing.
Some days it is just getting out of the car.