A couple of months ago, I ran into a woman that I had not seen for about a year.
“I love your new look!” the woman said. I was wearing a cute, short wig after losing my hair to chemo treatments.
I should have let it go at “thanks so much,” but she followed up with what I thought was a rather odd question: “Is it yours?”
Really, who asks that? It must have been what set me off.
“It’s a wig,” I said. But she still didn’t get it.
“Well, I love it,” she said. And then she followed up with another odd question: “Where did you get it?”
Perhaps I thought I was simply delivering an awesome one liner. Perhaps I was punishing her for not reading my blog.
“Dana Farber,” I responded.
And that, my friends, was that. I had humiliated and embarrassed this woman, and I’m not proud of it.
“I am so sorry,” she said, “I had no idea…”
Since that day, I’ve replayed that conversation in my head a hundred times. It is I who am sorry, of course, for causing her such embarrassment. And since this woman doesn’t read BA50 (or maybe she does now—that was quite a guilt trip), I guess I will have to manage a private apology instead of a public one.
I guess I was just a little sick and tired of the whole business. But that was then.
A few weeks after that episode, my friends convinced me I didn’t need a wig anymore. They told me I should “lose the hat” that I wore all winter, and “own” the “barely there” hair look. When they told me I looked like Amber Rose (except for the height, the weight, the boobs, the diamonds, the skin color, and the tattoos), I put the wig and all my hats on the high shelf in my closet, and bought a bold pink lipstick and big, round sunglasses.
And that is when I started to become visible again.
Women over 50 often complain of being invisible, but until I had cancer and lost my hair, I had no idea what they meant. Perhaps the only way to really get the meaning of invisible is when strangers start to avert their eyes rather than look at you, smile and say good day.
I saw it at the gym, as I walked back to the locker room after class, looking at the people on the machines. No one looked back.
I saw it at stores, when sales people didn’t look over at me. Hello? Can anyone help?
I saw it in restaurants, in bars, and on the street, where people refused to look up from their texting, or conversations, or the crack in the sidewalk.
Who are these people, these strangers who don’t have the decency to look a cancer patient in the eye? They are me. They are you. Really, it could be anyone. Perhaps averting your eyes, pretending not to see someone different, is second nature.
When you have cancer, or I suppose, if you are in a wheelchair or have another disability, it makes other people uncomfortable, and strangers treat you as if you are not there, making you feel invisible. But I got to tell you, it feels really crappy being on the other end. I didn’t need to be treated special—just human. I just wanted a smile and a hello, confirmation that I was not invisible.
As my hair grew in—it is now about ½ inch long (and way too gray) people have started to notice me again. The hostess in the restaurant. The man on the street. The teenagers hanging out in the parking lot. The women at exercise.
I now get eye contact. I get smiles. People are more comfortable with me, so they are able to see me.
I might be a cancer survivor, but then again, I might be just really, really hip. Hell, they might think I am Amber Rose’s mom. They don’t know, but they are willing to see me again.
But I promise, I will certainly never forget what if feels like to be invisible.