Sometimes, things don’t go as planned. This seems more glaringly true during the holidays. During this time, we are inundated with media depicting the perfect holiday– TV ads infused with beautiful or upbeat music, children laughing and rejoicing, couples in love, families gathered around a table in thanks and laughter. We want to sign up for that too, and do our best to create it for ourselves and loved ones. And then it happens: Someone we love passes away… we are laid off from our job… we are going through the process of divorce or perhaps, like me a number of Decembers ago, we are going through treatment to clear a life-threatening disease. Whatever the antonym to holiday perfection may be for you, I have found that the greatest gift to come from this shake-up is being brought back to what’s really meaningful and important in our lives. As lovely as the music, ornaments and parties can be, when we’re directed through these unbidden events to go within, something magical and transformative can happen if we pay attention. Life is pulling us away from the compelling distractions and now demanding that we focus on something greater: Our true essence. This is one of the holiest times of the year which often takes me back to the Christmas that brought me deeply profound and spiritually moving moments shortly after a disfiguring surgery and the start of chemotherapy. Little did I know at the time, that this was only the beginning of a journey that would bestow the gift of discovering my authentic self, and releasing the person I believed I was expected to be.
In October 1999, I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and after the mastectomy of my right breast the following month, I began chemotherapy the first week in December. My oncologist explained that at about 18 days my hair would begin to fall out. When I did the math, it was clear that I would be bald for Christmas. My husband, toddler son and I planned to visit my folks in Virginia, so this would be a shared event. I was grateful to have the love and support of my family around me during this time. I was still recovering physically and emotionally from the mastectomy and starting to feel the effects of chemotherapy. I felt like a walking science experiment among the holiday cheer, like a voyeur into someone else’s Christmas. I was able to show up at the important moments like family dinners, but inside I was addressing a lot of different emotions and physical oddities.
Sure enough, the morning of Christmas Eve, I stood under the shower and felt my hair coming out in clumps. I began to cry. So this is really happening to me. I’m headed down the whole nine yards of this cancer event, I thought. If the loss of my breast wasn’t enough, this moment certainly sealed the deal that life wasn’t going to be the same for a while. I got out of the shower and cried for my mother as if I were ten again. How wonderful that she was right there, which normally wasn’t the case, as we lived hundreds of miles apart from each other. Mom called her hair stylist, Tom, who opened his shop for us to head over so that I could get my first buzz cut. Tom took great care with me, carefully running the electric shears over my scalp, and then giving me a nurturing shampoo and scalp massage. When I looked in the mirror, I was both relieved and amused to see that I had a beautifully shaped head. No unsightly bumps, just smooth and round. I totally could have played a character in Star Trek. Hot and bald – yeah!
Once this depilatory event was over, I could relax a lot more as I accepted this next milestone in cancer treatment. I had brought my recently purchased wig to Virginia with me in anticipation of losing my hair. The style and color were very similar to my own. When my sister arrived from New York, I was wearing the wig. The first thing she said when she saw me was, “I thought you said that you lost your hair.” Clearly, I had chosen well in the wig department.
That Christmas with my family remains one of my favorites, despite being one-breasted and bald. I have no memory of what we ate or what gifts were exchanged; only the loving support, laughter and yes, the beauty of the holiday. I had a family who loved me, rallied around me and took most excellent care of me, enfolding me in a beautiful blanket of love.
You may have a situation, too, during this time that is the antithesis of “good times and sparkle.” Give yourself permission to step away. Believe it or not, the world still spins, the lights still flicker with beauty and we are oh-so loved, no matter what. Settle into this knowing and feel a big hug from me and those who love you!