It's not easy to carry on a passionate love affair with a wig on during chemotherapy, but it's doable. You just have to be lucky, as I was, to escape being constantly sick to your stomach and exhausted, which is easier these days with the new drugs. And you have to make sure the stickums at the front and back of the piece are properly secured to your scalp. Otherwise, your hair might end up in one place and you in another. Just thinking of the possibility is almost enough to squelch desire. Almost, but not quite.
But first there was the lumpectomy. After surgery, they stick a drain in your breast to siphon fluid into a plastic bag that dangles at your side. It's a temporary thing, but inconvenient nonetheless. So, on the sunny spring afternoon that my old friend came to see me while visiting New York from his home in Virginia, I wore a big, loose vest to cover the apparatus. We strolled to Central Park and sat on a bench catching up. We hadn't seen each other for several years, but we'd been e-mailing since 9-11 when he'd called to see if I was okay.
It turned out that for the first time in a long time he was not in a relationship, and I was in an unhappy one. That night my friend took me to see a Broadway play, never guessing the real drama for me was wondering if the tube of the drain bag I'd tucked into my pants pocket would disconnect and drench my clothes with body fluids. It didn't. But I'll bet it wouldn't have mattered to him. On another night during his visit he read to me from the manuscript of a book he was writing while rubbing my feet to keep them warm. We weren't lovers yet, but there was definitely a spark igniting between us.
He went home, and I started chemo. I had only one really bad day from it. It was harder dealing with the emotional fallout from breaking up my previous relationship. As soon as I could, I traveled to see my old friend, who was now hovering on the verge of being my new romance. After he picked me up at the train station and drove me to his home in the woods, I said with a strangled voice: you put my suitcase in your bedroom. He looked at me wryly and replied that he could put it in the guest room and move it back later. I said, I'm scared. He said, so am I. I left the suitcase where it was.
I stayed several days that time, the two of us taking morning and sometimes moonlight soaks in his outdoor hot tub, hanging out together, seeing each other through new eyes and liking what we saw. I went home, had my next chemo session, did some work, saw friends and went back down. I knew my hair would begin to fall out any minute, and sure enough, his sheets and pillowcases became sprinkled with strands of it. I began to see my scalp shine through what was left. My lover was kind and said I still looked fine. But my empathetic French wig man had told me there was a certain point at which it was best to come in and have him shave off the little hair remaining. I'd reached that point. When I got back to the city I went to see him, and that's when I began wearing my new wig on a regular basis. I named her Virginia .
Wigs are uncomfortable to wear all the time. Large, colorful scarves wrapped around your head and tied gypsy-style are fun. The only problem with a thin silk scarf on top of a bald scalp is that without the fullness of hair underneath, you look like a pinhead. And pinheadedness is not the only problem with scarves. If you wear them to bed, in order to avoid the wig debacle, you'll find the material slipping and sliding all over your head. That means constantly having to yank your scarf back in place during the throes of sleep or passion, or saying hell with it and letting your bald head hang out, which is probably the most sensible solution. And if you've been married a long time, that's most likely what you'd do. I went the scarves route and did a lot of yanking.
My new love said he wanted to show me one of the most beautiful places in the world when the chemo was over, the Greek island of Santorini . I was thrilled. We'd go after chemo ended and before radiation began. It would be an interim celebration. I had this whole cancer routine under control.
Except for the shingles. I knew they weren't just the little rectangles on the roof, but I'd never seen any. They're inflammations of the nerve endings (that can strike at any time in people who had chicken pox as children), and I guess the chemo indirectly brought them on. The doctor gave me a topical cream and painkillers. So off I went, passport in hand, with no hair, toxic chemicals running around my body supposedly doing good, a case of painful shingles extending from under my afflicted breast and around to the middle of my back, and a new lover.
He had booked a room in one of the hotels built into the huge cliffs that tower over the water. We had to walk down a hundred or so steps from the street level to get to the rooms, each with a separate entrance and terrace, each facing the sea. The arms of the island curve in a wide crescent around the volcano that rises out of the water. Down under the water are the remnants of a sunken city, violently torn from the rest of the island thousands of years ago when the volcano erupted. Some believe it's the lost city of Atlantis .
At sunset we'd sit on our terrace sipping wine, looking out at the vast panorama. Then we'd climb the stairs and go to a restaurant to have a meal of fresh-caught, expertly prepared fish. Each day I wore a different clingy, flowery summer dress I'd bought for the trip. I felt incredibly pretty and sexy in them, and incredibly sensual and sexual. I had wondered if I'd ever feel that way again, had decided it was unlikely and was philosophical about it. I had a busy, productive life, good friends, had raised a daughter who was on her own; I was a mature woman of a certain age, as they say, on my third career by choice (freelance writing and producing for a public radio station). I didn't need adolescent fantasies. Apparently I did, because I was having a romance to rival and surpass anything I'd known before.
In my saucy, colorful dresses, adorable wig and rakish scarves and hats, I headed off with my sweet man each day for a different part of the island, trekking to ancient sites on top of mountains and excavations under the ground, wandering down into Cliffside cafes for lunch or an afternoon coffee. At night after dinner, we'd go back to our elegant cave in the cliff to make love and hold each other all night, as I'd always dreamed of doing.
There was one more hurdle to jump through, however, before I could achieve total nirvana. The painkiller for the shingles had a side effect no one had warned me about -- what they refer to on TV commercials as "irregularity." I drew the line at discussing this new development in great detail with my lover, but I was getting miserable. When I had the chance, I ducked furtively into a tiny sundry shop to see if they carried a laxative. It's a hard thing to describe when you don't speak Greek. But this too shall pass, as they say, and after I stopped taking the culprit painkillers, eventually it did. The romance was back on full force.
We stayed in Athens for a couple of days on the way home. One afternoon, after we'd been to the Acropolis, we went into an outdoor cafe nearby for lunch. As we sat at a table under a tree he said to me casually, My tax man told me they`ve eliminated the marriage penalty. Was that a proposal? I asked, amused. Well, he said, it's good to know. Marry me, Lynda. Yes, I said, I'll marry you. And that's a story for another time.
"Wigged Out" originally appeared in 'V a Magazine for Women'. Lynda, a former actress, playwright, soap opera writer, and public radio producer is happily married to Jim. They split their time between New York and Virginia where Lynda is currently writing short stories.