Last Wednesday I went to school with a new, unexpected hairdo. A few students greeted me with, “Nice haircut”, or, “Wait, what?”; but most didn’t respond directly to me about the obvious change. We started the class period business as usual. I took attendance and sat on the front lab table to gaze in awe at my bustling herd.
The volume in the class lowered, the kids wrote their warm-up question responses and I announced, “Thanks for getting going efficiently today. Now who wants to talk about my hair?”
I told them why I shaved my hair. I drew diagrams of the anatomy of a strand of hair and explained the interactions behind chemo and hair. I told them about how the first time I had chemotherapy I pulled my hair out one chunk at a time. David said I looked like a mangy cat. I did. (What I did not tell them is that the first hair to actually fall out was what got suddenly pulled away as I wiped myself after a good pee. I thought it inappropriate to talk about my pubic hair in a classroom so I saved that for this more public setting. And, for the record, your hair doesn’t spontaneously fall to the ground. Little by little hair appears in denser and denser chunks on your pillow or in your brush. It’s not pleasurable but it doesn’t hurt.)
They wanted to know what it was like to have a biopsy. Their aunt just had one and they remembered their mom getting one done. I told them that I had been awake during my biopsies, but in a very happy place thanks to good drugs. As I recalled the feeling of a foot- long silvery needle scraping the inside of my tumorous vertebra, I told them that other than a little pressure all I remember is that the doctor performing the biopsy was super hot.
“OMG, Mrs. Wiley, of course you would remember that,” I heard female voices squeal.
Both procedures – spaced out by 6 years – happened to be done by young, tall, athletic doctors in well-fitting scrubs, intent on poking me while I was a little tipsy. What else was there to remember?
We laughed and I continued on about the other hot guys I got to meet through all of this tragedy. Some of them seemed surprised that I could find a silver lining to almost every story. And so three quarters of the way through the 90-minute class period Josue, historically jumpy and chatty and happy, sprang the question, “Mrs. Wiley, did you ever feel like giving up?”
“Don’t ask that,” snapped another student, in my defense.
But I had bared my soul to these teenagers and they were listening.
“Of course I wanted to give up. All the time,” I instantly replied. “I cry and I cry and I cry; I call my nurse at night on her cell phone and beg her to give me some hope; I get scared. But don’t we all want to give up on things once in awhile? Somehow, if you have the capacity to do so, you have to find a way to do keep fighting. I just have to because I tell myself that “giving up” is not an option. And so I find the things that make me feel good and I focus on those. I feel good when I am here with you.”
But I am just so exhausted.
Last Friday David called in sick for me and went to my classes to tell them that I would not be returning for the remainder of the school year. I needed them to know firsthand that I was not suddenly dying but that I really was struggling to keep living with all that I had on my plate. They understood, they loved me, they supported me and they wrote me letters telling me so.