The Velveteen Rabbit has never sounded quite the same to me since breast cancer.
I always found Margery Williams’ classic tale to be a somewhat dark and tragic and not at all Christmas-y story, what with the incidence and management of scarlet fever, and the burning of the child’s toys and all. But my kids seemed to like it, and while reading the story to my five year old one long winter, a soft cotton sleeping cap keeping my very bald head warm, I started to see it differently.
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others…For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it. “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful…
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Does it hurt when most of your hair has been “loved off”? It does. While it would be a lie to say that the Adriamycin and I had any real affection for each other, it is, when you think about it, the love of family and of life itself which lands us in the circumstance where we are getting together with the Red Devil and losing our hair in the first place. Being in a Catch-22 of that magnitude does hurt. Beyond the vague discomfort from the “loosening of the hair follicles” that feels exactly like when you were five and you slept in your ponytails, it hurts so much to lose your hair. It hurts to have everyone know that you are sick, and to worry that when you are out with your young children, people think you are dying or, worse yet, feel sorry for you. It hurts to look so vulnerable when you already feel so vulnerable. It hurts to see all those longish hairs on your pillow, and it hurts even to see the little pieces of your Jarhead haircut hair on your clothes.
(And while we are on the subject, now might be a good time to offer a belated apology to anyone who worked at my local J. Jill store that one day, for the millions of little hairs I left in their dressing room after trying on a sweater. I looked down at it after trying it on and realized with horror that they were everywhere. I don’t know what Emily Post would say is the etiquette for that particular scenario; I must have missed that chapter. Perhaps Emily would say that a lady who finds herself in this sticky social situation should simply notify the clerk, “I’m terribly sorry, I thought it would cheer me up to do a little shopping, but I didn’t realize that my hair was ‘releasing’ today. I see now that it is, and it is all over your dressing room. My apologies. Have a wonderful day.” But I didn’t know what to do, and I was about to do the ugly cry in the store, so I panicked, and left, and cried in the mall instead. I’m so sorry, well-and-yet-age-appropriately-dressed J. Jill ladies. It did hurt.)
And, just to solidify my long-held intention to come back in my next life as someone who is spared life’s biggest challenges because of her tendency to “break easily” and need to “to be carefully kept”, it is true that this breast cancer business is not for sissies. I suspect that we find, rather than create, our strength, in treatment, but it is true that I have yet to meet a breast cancer warrior who is not, in the truest sense, both real and beautiful. No matter her scars, no matter her baldness. No matter her anger, her sorrow, her confusion, her sadness.
It’s a lot of reality, for sure, but so much beauty, too. And even though you can’t see it at first, bit by bit, you can. There is nothing more beautiful than, well, just Being Real.
The Skin Horse, it turns out, was right.