She is a beautiful, intelligent, professional yet compassionate middle-aged woman. She sits down across from me, opens up a medical file, and then proceeds to pull out all kinds of paperwork, lab reports and statistical charts. She asks a lot of questions, a lot of extremely personal questions, but for me this is really just déjà vu. I’ve done this so many times in the past twenty years with other family members, so of course it feels familiar.
Only this time, it’s for my sake alone that we are having this conversation. Dr. B. is an oncologist, and she wants to discuss the various courses of chemotherapy and radiation treatments I’ll have to consider, along with their relative values, long-term consequences and inherently unpleasant side effects.
“The hardest thing to deal with, psychologically, is hair-loss,” she says, and then she hands me a whole stack of promotional brochures for head-wraps and wigs. I hand them all back and I can instantly tell by her expression that she thinks I’m in denial, but she continues to chatter away about the importance of setting personal goals for the future.
“Listen,” I tell her, “the hardest thing for me to deal with psychologically is the fact that I won’t be visiting Israel for the next 6 months. I know a number of people over there and they all shave their heads. It’s in style and considered extremely chic. If I pierce a few holes in my ears or scribble a henna tattoo on my arm, I’m going to fit right in. But as far as future personal goals are concerned, I’ve got two really big ones for now: be the most fashionable chemo patient you’ve ever seen, and then be as unseen by you as possible once these treatments are over with.”
Dr. B. laughs, puts the stack of promotional brochures back into my hands, and once again I return them to her like we’re playing a game of hot potato.
“These brochures are pretty fashionable,” she says, “don’t you even want to take a look?”
“Here,” I tell her, as I point to my own shoulder length tresses, “don’t you even want to take a look?” And as she leans in a bit closer I give a small tug which makes her gasp.
“Wow, that’s amazing, I would never have guessed. It’s so natural looking. I think it’s great that you’re getting yourself used to the idea of wearing a wig.”
“Well,” I answer, “I’ve been trying to get myself used to that idea for years now. I’ve got a whole closet full of hats, scarves, berets and hair. It’s part of the observant Jewish tradition.”
“Ah, I see,” she replies, “I’ve had a few orthodox Jewish women as patients and they really do seem to handle things much better, overall. Why do you suppose that is?”
“Faith probably has a lot to do with it,” I respond, “but there’s also this little Friday night ritual we have, and every week we make sure to imprint ourselves with a ‘sheker ha-chain’ philosophy of living.”
She tries to repeat the phrase, mangles it badly, then asks me to explain…so I do:
“On Friday nights, there is a custom. We gather around the table before dinner and sing traditional songs. One is to welcome the angels of sabbath peace and one is to honor the women of the household. This second song is called ‘Aishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor’. The words were composed by King Solomon and you can find them in the Book of Proverbs. It’s a very moving and powerful description of a thoroughly modern woman who’s actively and forcefully involved in all aspects of living; within the home, within the community, and even within the world at large. But Solomon concludes that the physical virtues of charm and beauty are false and vain, a superficiality. It’s the Jewish perspective that only the sincere, innermost attributes of a woman’s faith and spiritual awe are worth praising.”
Dr. B. listens politely, she smiles, she is indulgent. Then she tells me that hair loss occurs about 10 days after the first treatment. She wants me to know that many women decide to cut off their hair beforehand to lessen the trauma. I leave her office with a treatment plan and a certain amount of confidence that I’m going to make it through this ordeal. I don’t book any appointments at the salon, and there’s not a thought in my mind about hair loss.
So I skip the haircut and let things take their own course. Ten days after my first treatment, I’m a complete stranger to myself. I can’t even look in a mirror. When I inadvertently catch a glimpse of the reflected alien, all I do is cry and think of those other words of Solomon:
“Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that trail down from mount Gilead.”
Yes, physical charms are false and beauty may be vain, but it’s still a powerful asset and undeniably difficult when a woman endures the loss of it. Oh Solomon, Solomon, what a tug of war you played at! You may have been a wise ruler, but you were still such an earthly man. Weren’t you allied to the beauties of foreign nations? And weren’t you surrounded by the loveliest daughters of Zion? The splendor of Sheba was your companion! I can’t believe that your Song of Songs was merely an allegory without a physical reference. So just who were you writing those proverbs for? It couldn’t possibly have been meant for me.
But I am only at tug of war with myself. I do the oddest thing. I save the dead hair and wrap it up in tissue paper. I want to remind myself for awhile, just what it is that I have lost. I think of King Solomon and I am bitter. On Friday afternoons, I take out the tissue package…and mourn.
Then I reluctantly come down to the dinner table on Friday nights. But when I look around the Sabbath table, I begin to see an amazing thing. It is all right there in the eyes of my family and my friends. They have not just been mouthing the words of Solomon for all these years; they have taken it into their hearts. To them, my hair is what it always was, a small fashion accessory and a complete invisibility. I stare back into the mirror of my own soul and take a better look. It’s a mystifying thing about valor, and it turns out that mine has been chemo-resistant all along. It’s still right there in the reflection.
And it has been left entirely…unscathed.
Joyce Schur is a writer, an editor, and a veteran of the war on cancer. She has been interviewed by Fox News and Oprah magazine as an advocate for BRCA genetic testing, especially among women of Ashkenazic Jewish descent.