February 10th, 2010
I caved in and got a wig. There were two sources of pressure for me. First, the daughter that everybody says looks just like me has been asking me to get a wig since she learned about the alopecia that came with chemotherapy. Then, although I thought I was going to be a brazen cancer person and go around with my comfy headwraps, never mind what everybody else thought, I got weary of walking around as Cancer incarnate.
The wig, of course, is just a form of passing. I have been starkly reminded of how much of a role appearance plays in our interactions. There is a ton written about passing, both in the social sciences and literature. Passing makes an interesting story, in part, because it dramatizes the places where one’s private self conflicts with societal norms. Sometimes I don’t bother passing. I go out and I look like Cancer. People often treat me differently, in good ways and bad. On the one hand, they help me out and are patient with me as I fumble around in my addled state. They say kind things and cheer me on. But sometimes I grow tired of looking like Cancer. The absolute worst for me is when I feel fine and energetic and I get a piteous frown from a passing stranger. It’s withering. So some days, I choose to wear my wig and fake eyelashes, what I call my Cancer Drag. On those days, I like to pretend along with everybody else that I am well again.
Black people (and others) have written a lot about racialized interactions, where somebody primarily responds to their blackness (as opposed to their overall humanity) when they talk to them. I’m sure you can picture it. On the obvious end, it’s awkwardly addressing a black person as “bro.” On the more subtle end, it’s suddenly dropping the g’s at the end of –ing words (“how you doin’?”). When you are on the receiving end of these interactions, you learn a lot about people’s preconceived notions of who you are.
When I walk around bald and lashless, I experience –– what? Cancerized? –– interactions that reveal a lot about people’s ideas about what it means to have this disease. Many people are comfortable with me as Cancer when I am either pious and heroic (this doesn’t happen often) or sassy and kickass. People are less comfortable with me being a regular person or, worse yet, really taking in the heartbreak of what I am facing.
As much as modern people like to think of themselves as scientific and rational, superstition comes out in interactions when I look like Cancer. In fact, the problem lies with the very assumption that life is rational, that some kind of logic and order exists that gives reason to why I, for the moment, am one of cancer’s It Girls. Guilt colors what they say. I am on the receiving end of pressured and awkward expressions of gratitude for people’s own good fortune or hurried dismissals of their own troubles. I understand the distress in seeing a formerly healthy person taken down by disease. I have felt it too –– keenly. But I am so grateful when people can just talk to me honestly and sincerely. This other way of talking makes me want to wave a hand in front of their averted eyes. It feels like some kind of ritual to keep them from catching cancer.
These people are often well meaning. I know they are trying to “spare” me in these interactions. Ironically, the perspective they take does the exactly opposite. I want to say to them, Don’t worry. You won’t get cancer from looking me in the eye. I did not get cancer because I was not grateful enough. My disease is not here to teach me a lesson that you are, with your avalanche of uncomfortable gratitude, proving you don’t have to learn. I did not get cancer because I made too much of my little problems that needed to get put into proper perspective. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but you will not avoid cancer by minimizing your troubles. Go on and be as dramatic as you like. Cancer doesn’t really care.
That is the absolute injustice of it. And that is the heartbreak. Stop for a moment and take in the heartbreak. It might make you cry, but it won’t make you sick, I promise. Sometimes things just happen that are beyond our control. And I am learning that this truth is very difficult for people to tolerate.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 at 2:41 am and is filed under Treatment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.