Beauty

I’m going for it. Black tie function: no Tatum, no hat. Just me, my crew cut, and a certain amount of bravado. None of my elegant evening outfits is improved with a straw fedora or sweltering helmet hair. So I’m hoping these fierce stems will draw attention away from my teeny head and toward my fabulous feet. In a flattering light, maybe this super short ‘do has evolved from chemotherapeutic to… French? Je ne sais pas. It’s entirely possible that this surgically altered body balancing atop platform heels looks like the-drag-queen-lost-his-wig. Trusted girlfriends are vital to these doubting moments in front of the mirror.

Happily, darling Linda has arranged for A Day of Beauty. She will be here soon to deliver me and my sad, drugstore makeup collection into the expert hands of women who paid better attention to their pretty mothers at their toilette. For 25 years I’ve been going out into the world in little more than waterproof mascara and an embarrassment of pink eye shadows. If the event is sufficiently fancy, I’ll still draw blue half moons under my eyes as if everybody plans to Wang Chung tonight. Even if I don’t pick up any new skills today, the helpful staff at Serra will probably insist that I un-learn a few.

I haven’t submitted to expert makeup application since my Chinese Wedding Banquet. Eleven years ago, A-Ma ushered me to the Shiseido store in Flushing, NY, where the only-Mandarin-speaking staff offered me a tray of neon eye shadows and asked me to “pick color!” Eventually they sort of gave up trying to work against my unfamiliar complexion: “Waaah, SO pink!” I think today may go a little differently. Even as a veritable cosmetic rube, I’m actually pretty excited to surrender myself to whatever plucking and powdering they deem necessary. Also this forced mirror-gazing time will be a sort of immersion therapy to get accustomed to baring my un-hatted head in public, and summon my inner Twiggy.

Generous Gretje, a talented photographer, recently extended a lovely invitation to memorialize my shorn self in digital splendor for posterity. Although some women are empowered embracing their hairlessness, and bald-is-beautiful, and beauty is on the inside, and blah blah blah, these women (with their better-shaped heads) are less vain than I. I’m not camera ready. I still startle at the sight of that fuzzy girl in the mirror and am loathe to dredge up the feelings I associate with having no hair: fear, cold, loss. Thankfully, and possibly with the help of too much wine, these memories have already begun to fade.

Tonight is the last graduation dinner of the season, so off we will go to the country club for the final steak-or-fish dinner. There are certainly more unfortunate fashion disasters than really really short hair, but I’m feeling very “…into the fray!” regarding my Tatum-less debut. Somehow Linda knew I’d need the confidence-bolstering effects of looking pretty: a feeling that essentially vanished with my hair. But even without pricy cosmetics, Linda’s unwavering support, her passionate embrace of life, her effortless navigation of the universe toward lovely things, and her spiritual handholding as my Zen role model for trust in God (Beauty, Love, Light) prove that some things cannot be lost. Today Beauty is found not in the mirror, but in a trusted girlfriend… who also happens to be a knock out. Thank you, gorgeous Linda.

 

Tatum-less Debut

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Drinking

I have forgotten how to drink responsibly. Perhaps I still have a lower tolerance for alcohol, or possibly I’m too eager for celebrations, but on Friday morning dear old friend Ran and I were moving slowly. One bottle didn’t seem like enough of an accompaniment for our kids-are-finally-asleep gossipy reunion, but we failed to cork bottle number two at a reasonable time to all sorts of dizzying, stomach-churning morning effects. At this age hangovers are infrequent, but last much longer than those earned from any similarly boozy, late-night chitchats Ran and I might have shared back in college. And instead of sleeping late and recovering with remedial hash browns at the dining hall, we were met with five children who expected to be fed and sun screened and delivered to the seaside for loud, sunshiny fun. Ugh.

In the very best way, I blame Dad. Ever since I left home, returning (always cause for merriment) would inspire at least one late night of conversation catch up with an immoderate amount of wine. After one particularly indulgent reunion, Dad and I enacted a new rule to prevent especially painful mornings after: no uncorking after 3am. Anyone who has spent an evening at my parent’s house knows we Stocktons enjoy our festive gatherings. So it was in this vein that I approached my celebratory reunion with Ran, who I have known and adored for two decades, but haven’t seen in the past six months. It was bliss. How lovely to toast the end of an icky, bald era with a friend who has been so supportive from afar. At one point Ran offered insight so kind, so poignant, so dear that he brought me to cathartic, this-hell-is-over tears. Wish I could remember what he said. (Kidding aside, it was actually about how bees knees awesome Bernie is… and that my swoony sentiments about him were more comforting than puke-worthy.)

Because I felt responsible for Ran’s greenish hue, I sent him back to bed and corralled all of the children so they could make noise elsewhere. Luckily for me, what most kids want for lunch is perfect hangover food. So as I pilfered poolside French fries and fried chicken fingers, I made a Cancer Graduation Resolution. I’m not going to get drunk with ALL of you. There will be a welcome stream of friends and family here at the Cape this summer: lovely people who need to lay eyes on me to see that these silly words I type are true, that I’m OK, that I’m still me. For the sake of my liver, and to curb my more frequent tendency to dissolve into a puddle of grateful tears, these celebratory reunions should occasionally include alternate beverages. Otherwise, I’m going to miss out on more kind, poignant, dear sentiments because I sauvignon blanc’ed.

The obvious remedy (as it would be fun to get good and schnockered with the lot of you) is to have a gigantic party. There are so many reasons why that would be fabulous, but the one I couldn’t have predicted is that it would, in one fell swoop, bring an end to all of the first-time-I’ve-seen-you-since-chemo reunions that I am unable to divorce from excessive champagne flute-clinking. It would appear that all self-control regarding my approach to festive drinking went the way of my hair. But truth be told, these celebrations inevitably include some re-hashing of the Big Cancer Story and possibly it’s a bit easier to do that emboldened (and numbed) by a glass (or five) of fizzy wine.

All of this reminds me of Big Bryan’s Towel Theory. If my biggest problem is having too many opportunities to be the over-celebrating tipsy girl, then perhaps I really have none (other than the Stockton Family aversion to anything in moderation). But in order to avoid queasy mornings, I should really stop approaching every post-Cancer get-together channeling Liz Imbrie (The Philadelphia Story): “Champagne? I’ve never had enough.”

Me and Ran, giggling without cocktails, 1992

Grandma Karen

I’ve been waiting for this exact day since December. I’m on the Cape with the boys and no plans other than to acquire tan lines. I’ve relaxed all of the rules so that parenting has morphed into detached bemusement. When Teddy tattles on Brodie for thwacking him with a golf club, I’m too blissed out on my screened porch in a summery breeze to offer anything other than, “Who wants cupcakes?” It actually has the same effect as sequestering them to opposite sides of the house: no more thwacking… but with the added bonus of cupcakes.

The regularly scheduled parenting program will return shortly. Teddy needs to be cured of a bad “yeah” habit, and the ethnic accents he learned on YouTube (thanks, Alice) are going to get all of us into trouble. Abusing sporting equipment as weaponry will be a punishable offence, and the cartoon network, verboten. Soon I’ll be tricking them into solving all sorts of math problems. But today… a short nap, a little more wine.

Earlier this week, my father took mom home. My mother has been at my side for two out of every three weeks since The Diagnosis, but the time has come for me to return her to her husband and life. Grandma Karen has officially completed her laundry-folding, dishwasher-filling, grocery store-running, little boy-chauffeuring call of duty. I haven’t written about my mom, having no idea how to describe how vital she has been to all of us without sounding precious. But even Bernie thinks we should start inventing excuses why she needs to come back. I don’t know more than a handful of men who would happily endorse mother-in-law visits in the absence of tragedy, but Bernie’s whips up a mean hot toddy to cure all that ails and tells him every single morning how handsome and wonderful he is. A man can get used to that.

My mother is essentially All Things Pretty. With her professionally styled hair and never-chipped nails, Mom is perennially ready for the prom. She wears heels to the Star Market and would never leave the house without an umbrella, lest an unplanned drizzle undo her pricy blow-out. (I have a sneaking suspicion that her weather obsession is entirely hair-related.) Mom taught me to dress well for travel, to invest in beautiful evening shoes, to plant flowers everywhere, and to be generous in my definition of cocktail hour. Multiple piercings, exposed bra straps, open car windows, and clogs are anathema to Mom, and she can be harsh in her criticism of things that she considers unlovely. And yet, she faithfully, fearlessly served the House of Ugly without a judgmental peep.

I could devote an entire chapter to Cancer Silver Linings, but one of the brightest would be that my boys were so often under the loving, beautiful care of my mother. Among the best of the (many, many) things Mom did well was to continue being Grandma. In my energy-zapped absence, she checked homework for errors and toothbrushes for evidence of use and many of the other daily drills of Mommy… all without acquiring the less fun trappings of the job. In six months, during which her own little girl felt ill and unattractive, Grandma Karen never once seemed frustrated with the always something demands of small boys. Instead, she remained quintessentially Grandma: offering after-school ice cream, another game of cards, or permission to eat crumbly things in front of the TV. Her bed became the primary destination for wandering boys with bad dreams. There have been moments when the boys were as eager for a lull in the parade of helpful relatives as I have been for longer hair. However when we began talking about Grandma going back to Pennsylvania, my boys didn’t ask “when” she’d be leaving, but “how come?”

Grandma Karen turns 70 tomorrow. She and her twin sister, Sharon (The Teeny Twin Grandmas) will be overdressing for fancy, wine-fueled lunches followed by shopping for pretty, pretty things in Beaufort, SC. It’s too adorable imagining them teetering on their insensible shoes and finishing each other’s sentences on the hunt for ramekins and bobeches and other girly things with ridiculous names. I’m thrilled she’ll be able to celebrate 140 collective years of twin sisterhood without the distraction of thwacking grandsons, and the liberation of being loved and missed, but no longer vitally needed. Knowing these gals will certainly avoid the unwanted calories of birthday sweets in favor of more celebratory spirits, we’ll eat cupcakes in their honor up here. I’ll be toasting mom with my own bubbly beverage, too, ever grateful for her devoted Grandma duty and daily reminders of All Things Pretty in the world… as she personifies them.

 

Teeny Twin Grandmas
(Karen and Sharon)

Perspective

I can’t keep up with Linda. No sooner do I drop a thank you note in the mail for an especially thoughtful this or that, than another gift arrives, all timely and needed and perfect in that moment. I don’t know how Linda guessed that my eyelashes are shedding while my eyebrows look like something glued on a sock puppet, but she showed up recently with plans for a day of beauty. It’s definitely time for beauty.

Graduation season has arrived and during the month of June, Bernie and I always have a handful of dinners to attend in honor of residents and fellows (who have been training to treat patients exactly like me). I’m a sucker for these milestone moments, and also any excuse to drink more than I should and gab the night away in expensive shoes. The new body fits well into most of my old formalwear, but it would be nice to have a swish of hair to top it off. I’m getting very impatient (and remaining quite vain) about that. I’ve got a solid crew cut happening, but when I revealed it to my mom to assess its public readiness she was baffled: “…what color is that, exactly?”

So, April will be my guide as to when my colorless hair has grown from chemo-cut to chic-short. Among other things I love about that gal is the fact that she cannot lie; she’ll tell me when I can stop being The Cancer Girl in the Jaunty Hat. Unfortunately I’m still halting otherwise lovely conversations to explain my natty get-up. But unbelievably, there are actually moments when I forget the past six months until someone asks me what’s going on under my fedora. In the meantime, Teddy fully endorses my hedgehog hairstyle: “Hey, you finally look like ME!”

Adorably fuzzy Teddy

As I wait for hair to grow, life has returned to some sort of normal. Last night we had a real party over here with grilled foods, too much wine, and unsupervised children. April’s funny husband was sitting next to me, medicating himself with red wine and beer chasers after a long afternoon of little league torture. At some point there was a dearth of dry towels as small, wet children quit the water fun for dinner, and I lamented the fact that all of the beach towels ended up at the Cape. As April bundled her children into my stained and mismatched wash-the-car rags, Big Bryan admonished me with his usual dry wit: “This. THIS has become your biggest problem. The towels are at the Cape.” True. No more complaints here.

Well Dressed and Weeping

Friday was my final surgery and the event hardly lived up to my dread of it. I thought that being wheeled back into the OR would push play on a montage of scary moments from the past few months. Nope. With Bernie at my side, Maria cherry-picking the staff, and Adam bringing his usual fun approach to an absolute command of the day, I relaxed into their capable hands and drugs. Still a bit loopy from anesthesia, I have a vague sense that I talked to many of you yesterday… but since that’s impossible, I can honestly say I felt your prayers.

With my half inch of fuzzy hair, and new body that seems more can-play-tennis than dance-on-poles, I think I’ve entered the hopeful healing phase. It will be a few more weeks before I can hug you hello, but in the aftermath of my final implant swapping, I feel pretty fantastic. Once again, I’m perched on pillows, napping off narcotics, and enduring the careful cuddles of my boys who are happy to know that this is the last time they’ll need to tip toe around a battered and bandaged mommy.

Last weekend, as Bernie’s sister’s family visited, I did my usual mostest hostess thing, not only because I had the energy to do it (and because their family’s approach to mealtime is gypsy at best), but also because I was desperately trying to distract myself from patchy baldness, shedding eyelashes, and looming surgery. As all of these treatments and side effects wind down to a happy end, I’m worried that a big, emotional meltdown is on the frontier. And as a blotchy, ugly weeping sort, I’d rather be in some control of when the sobbing, grateful relief of finality hits me. In a rare moment of hiding-with-Prosecco-on-the-patio, my four-year-old niece ambushed me with an assortment of talking points:

“Why do you always wear hats?”
“Why didn’t Uncle Bernie get Cancer?”
“Do you have any rainbow hats?”

In addition to at least fifteen more arbitrary questions and observations, this was my favorite declaration, as she coquettishly fingered her pink, sparkly barrette:

“When I grow up, there’s NO WAY I’m taking chemo!”

Good plan, sweet girl. I hope I can be that one-in-eight for all of us. Her innocent take on this made me want to buck up immediately. Should this brand of bad fortune cross her path in the future, maybe she’ll remember Auntie Britt did it grilling food for 18 people in a (not rainbow, but still snazzy) hat.

Here on the other side of silicone, I’m ready for my cancer mortarboard. And like all graduates, I’m brimming with thankful nostalgia and swallowing lumps in my throat with love for all of you. It just so happened (do these things just “happen”?) that our faithful Rector, Dorsey, gave his final sermon this morning before he leaves us to be even more Important as the Bishop of Pittsburgh. It was poor planning to attend this service without Ativan, or at least better answers for Teddy’s rather constant queries in loud stage whispers, “What’s wrong with your eyes? Why is your nose red?” After weeks (months?) of keeping my mixed emotions at bay for the sake of my kids, my friends, the CVS pharmacist, or the eyebrow pencil wielding staff at Sephora, our kind-hearted Rector bade us goodbye with an eleventh hour endorsement for exactly this brand of splotchy, unattractive, and public blubbering.

Dorsey’s message today was that it’s a good and great thing to let our hearts soften in these milestone moments. These are actually Holy Spirit shout-outs, weepy recognition of all the things we’ve been doing right… all that “walking in His ways” stuff that leads to good places. Hardening my heart to its messy effects might have left me with a bit more mascara and dignity, but I couldn’t help but sniffle along with the rest of the congregation and revel in the beauty of a large group of very well dressed people not too proud to honk into hankies. Maybe a bit more than other parishioners lately, I’ve been relying on Dorsey’s Big Guns prayers and the generosity of his flock, neither of which are abandoning me now. Almost at odds with the very fact that our Church is divinely lovely, Dorsey reminded us that its actual location remains earthly. Meanwhile a heavenly “Church” exists in the fellowship between us, the ones we love, and Him… and none of those beautiful things is being ripped away from us to Pittsburgh. On this final Sunday with Dorsey, and at this particular moment for me, I saw it more clearly than ever… through tears.