Hope vs. Scars and Scarves
Life was so much easier when I didn’t have hair. Each of the three times I lost my hair, I rejoiced that my outward appearance finally matched my inner struggle. Being bald equals being given grace. Sympathetic smiles from passersby are abundant. Kind strangers jump up to offer you their seat. Hostesses lead you to the quiet corner table without any wait. Cards arrive in the mail, just because. But then my hair grew back, and I was faced with the new stripped-down version of my body. And I had no idea what to do with that.
You see, pre-cancer, I had a pretty messy relationship with my body. I didn’t want to know my body. I didn’t even know I had a body. Anything neck down was something to be seen, not heard. I was all brainpower. I tried to control everything. I ran further and faster. I pushed my body to the limits time and time again and even pushed past them. I carried on when I was sick. I restricted food when I was feeling my jeans were getting tight. There was no listening, only telling, only directing, only demanding.
Finishing the swim portion of my third triathlon in 2002
And then, at the age of 27, I got cancer and met my body for the first time. I was compelled to get to know what my body liked and needed. I had no other choice but to slow down and listen. And when the results were not what I wanted, I was forced to admit that I no longer had control over this body that I’d never taken the time to get to know.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I attended a benefit gala. Ellie and Tommy are not used to seeing their parents dressed up in black-tie attire. They were a bit shocked when they saw us walk downstairs, dressed in our fancy clothes. I had chosen a strapless jumpsuit and added large earrings to distract from my disguised, permanently large bald spots.
Ellie told us we looked, “Great!” Tommy took a moment before commenting. After thanking Ellie, I looked at my little man and noticed his eyes staring at a spot just above the line of my strapless jumpsuit.
“Mom, your scar is showing,” he said.
“Yea, it sure is, Bud,” I replied.
The four of us were silent for a moment before Tommy finally said, “Mom, you look really good.”
My children know my scars, and they understand why I have them. I’ve always tried to be honest about my battles with cancer without scaring them. I’ve never tried to hide the marks on my skin but instead wear them as badges of honor. So for me, at that moment, more than the fancy clothes or sparkly earrings, I was dressed in approval and admiration from my two precious children.
Taken a while back but still one of my favorites
And that’s the thing about our bodies. They can be covered in whatever we choose. They are spoken to with our words. They hear our approval, and they cringe with our criticisms. The world we live in emphasizes beauty and appearances and being a certain weight. We can’t help but absorb this message, but I think it’s what we do with it that matters.
My body is now my hero. I love these legs that have carried me such a long way. I adore my heart that has continued to pump so much blood, even when it was filled with poisonous medicine. I appreciate my lungs that have kept breathing in the oxygen I needed to survive. I am in absolute awe of my body, and I cling to the hope that it has enough strength to keep going a lot longer.
Now, to be clear, I am not Buddha, so of course, my vanity creeps back in all the time. I still only weigh myself with my shoes off, I purchase the expensive face creams, and I like to keep up with a few fashion trends. The difference is that I do this along with my body, not in spite of it.
Here’s the tricky thing about vanity. When we look “good” on the outside, others assume we must be okay. And when we are wearing our beloved scarves and hand-knit caps, it’s inferred we are sick and struggling. Some of my happiest moments have been in the depths of my cancer battle and some of my saddest when I looked my best. We hope that happiness will follow the glamour, but that’s not always the case.
Scarves and Scars. Bald heads vs. glamorous jumpsuits. Brainpower vs. listening. We are all a collection of our hopes and our struggles. We trust our bodies will be strong enough to carry us through this roller coaster called life. And we try to listen even amid the need for control.
True approval comes from within. To be in awe of the awesomeness we individually possess is to be in connection with ourselves. We all have scars- some visible, some not, but either way, they are a part of us. Instead of trying to hide them from the world and cover up who we really are, let’s celebrate who we are- the good, bad, and the ugly. Because, at the end of the day, just as Tommy said, we all look “really great.”
In love and hope,