My hand ran down the length of her torso. Realization came in waves, and when it hit me this time, it was like a ton of bricks: there was a cancer growing inside of this little, perfect body, a cancer that if left untreated, was a ticking time bomb that would likely kill her.
I grabbed a hold of her tighter and felt tears sting my eyes. Please stop. There was nowhere I could run if I started to lose it.
Then, I heard her voice so low it was almost inaudible. “It’s okay to cry.”
I shut my eyes, willing the tears away, but she knew. She could feel it.
“I’m not crying,” I said as the first teardrop fell.
She turned around. “Yeah, and you’re not hard, either.”
We both burst into laughter with tears pouring from our eyes.
Skylar fell asleep in my arms about fifteen minutes later.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I chose to stay up and listen to the sound of her breathing instead, each breath reassurance that she was still here, that everything was going to be fine.
It had to be.
I watched the sun begin to rise on a day I wished would never come. Then, for the first time since the little girl in braids came into my life, I prayed to a God I hoped was still listening.
“Just do it.”
Lizete held my father’s electric shaver but was refusing to turn it on. My new stepmother was the perfect person for this job. We weren’t close enough for it to really affect her like it would my mother, and I couldn’t bear to do it myself. So, a few days after my hair started falling out in chunks, I asked her to meet me in the bathroom.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yes,” I said, staring blankly at my father’s outdated pink bathroom tile.
“But you still have a lot of hair.”
“It’s only a matter of days. This way, I can control it.”
She nodded. “Okay, m’ija, whatever you want.” I hated her nickname for me, the Spanish word for daughter. I wasn’t her daughter. I had to give her credit, though. When she married my father, she hadn’t signed up to have a sick teenager living with them. As much as I wanted to hate her, I couldn’t. She made the best damn arroz con pollo, too.
She clicked a button, triggering the buzzing sound. I saw nothing but her big, fake boobs before closing my eyes as the blade raked over my head. Focusing on the sound, I continued to keep my eyes shut and told myself this was about preserving my dignity and beating chemo to the punch.
It’s just hair.
After a few minutes, a draft blew over my head, and I knew it was all gone.
When the buzzing stopped, Lizete gently placed her cold hands on my scalp. I still refused to open my eyes. “Can you give me a minute alone?”
She patted my shoulders. “Sure, m’ija. Come downstairs when you’re ready, and I’ll make you something to eat.”
I heard the door shut.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two…two…two…one.
I opened my eyes. My heart skipped a beat.
It’s just hair…until it’s gone.
I continued to stare into the mirror, hoping that at any moment, the sight of myself bald would get easier to accept. No matter how much you try to prepare yourself for something, you just don’t know how you’ll handle it until it happens. Now, I looked like I had cancer, and the reality of that was hard to take. Pretending that everything was normal would no longer be an option.
I cried for the first time since arriving in New York over two months ago.
Up until this moment, nothing had been unbearable. I had already completed the first cycle of a type of chemo called ABVD. It sounds like a sexually transmitted disease, but the letters represent each of the four different drugs in the regimen. Even getting those toxins pumped into me hadn’t been as bad as losing my hair.
Actually, so far, chemo wasn’t as scary as I’d imagined. To avoid frequent needle sticks in my veins, the drugs were administered right through a port that was inserted under my collarbone.
The nurses always did their best to cheer me up and take my mind off it without trying to make it seem like a bed of roses. They gave me what I needed without feeding me a load of bullshit. They’d have sour candies to help rid the bad taste in my mouth caused by one of the drugs, Adriamycin. They’d also turn the television onto the entertainment channel for me. I could block out what was actually happening by involving myself in reality television and would forever associate treatment with watching the Kardashians. Khemo.
My father would stay with me for the full three hours. Once they administered all four drugs, they’d flush my port, and I was good to go home where I’d try to pretend I didn’t have cancer until the next treatment. Forgetting was easier in the beginning.
I rubbed my fingers along the top of my prickly head now, wondering how I was going to face Mitch looking like this. He was scheduled to visit over Christmas, which was coming up in less than a week. I hadn’t even picked out a wig yet. I wasn’t expecting to lose my hair so fast since I’d managed to make it through the entire first cycle with no hair loss. To have it come out in chunks all of a sudden was devastating because I was starting to hope that maybe I’d get lucky. Now, Lizete and I had plans to visit a wig shop in Bensonhurst tomorrow.
She had left me an assortment of her hats to choose from on my bed. I picked a gray, knit beret, feeling immediate relief when I looked into the mirror after putting it on.
My phone chimed. I grabbed it from my pocket and noticed a text from Mitch.
Just thinking of you. I can’t wait to see you this weekend. How are you doing?
I wanted to tell him that I was miserable and scared about letting him see me without hair, but I didn’t see the point in worrying him when he was so far away.
Skylar: Doing okay. How are you?
Mitch: I miss you. So does Seamus. He hates me because he thinks I’m keeping you away.
Skylar: I miss you too.
Typing those words had made me cry again. I lay on the bed staring up at the textured paint on the ceiling, licking my tears as they fell. I missed him. I missed his smell. I missed home. I missed my life before cancer.
I hugged my stuffed Tigger tightly. With pink walls and white furniture, my room at my father’s house was girly and filled with my old stuffed animals. When my parents first got divorced, I used to take a lot of my toys with me to feel more at home, and most of them were still here.
I could smell Adobo seasoning. Lizete was cooking something.
She called from downstairs. “Skylar?” I cringed at how the ‘r’ in my name always rolled off her tongue. “Do you need anything? Lunch is almost ready.”
My Dad had a meeting and wouldn’t be home until tonight. I wished I were completely alone so that I didn’t have to worry about her catching me crying.
I wiped my eyes and yelled, “Everything’s fine. I’m gonna stay up here for a while and rest.”
It was getting dark out. I shut off the light to take a nap, and it was nearly pitch black in my room.
When my phone rang, I almost didn’t pick up. After a few rings, I reached over and saw that it was Mitch.
A painful longing grew in my chest upon hearing his smooth, deep voice.
I cleared my throat. “What’s going on?”
“This is gonna sound strange. I know you said you were doing okay, but I’ve just had this feeling all day that you weren’t, and to be honest, I’m not doing so hot myself. I needed to hear your voice.”
How did he know? I closed my eyes and knew that if I opened my mouth, he’d hear that I was starting to cry.
I needed to hear your voice, too.
“Skylar? Are you there?”
My voice was shaky. “Yes. I’m here.”
“Are you crying?”
I sniffled. “Yes.”
His tone was soothing, almost a whisper. “Talk to me. What’s making you sad?”
I hesitated, but he’d find out sooner or later. “I had to shave my head today.”
He didn’t say anything right away, just breathed into the phone. “I knew something happened. I just knew it.” He sighed, and his voice lowered. “I’m so sorry.”
“I know it was inevitable. It was just a shock to actually see it all gone.”
“I can only imagine.” He paused. “Listen, have you checked your email? It’s really ironic, but I sent you something this morning. Are you in front of a computer?”
“I can be.”
I reached for my laptop. When I logged in, I saw that Mitch had sent me a bunch of images of famous people who had shaved their heads for movie roles. The first one was of Natalie Portman, who happened to be his celebrity crush. So, naturally, I hated her. The next was of Demi Moore. Then, there was Megan Fox.
I wasn’t exactly sure of his point. “Wow, this is—”
“You see them?”
“What do you see when you look at them?”
“Actually, they don’t look too bad because they’re all beautiful anyway.”
“You think they’re beautiful?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“You’re ten times more beautiful, Skylar.”
I could never get enough of hearing him call me that. “Mitch…”
“It might take some getting used to, not having your hair, but in the end, you’re still gorgeous, and you know what I’m gonna think of when I see your bald head?”
You’re never seeing my bald head, buddy.
“The fact that the chemo is doing its job, kicking the asses of those cancer cells. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I wasn’t sure if he had practiced this spiel to make me feel better or if he truly meant it. Either way, he had succeeded in brightening my mood.
My lips curved upwards into a smile. “What would I do without you?”
“You’re never gonna find out.”
I heard barking. “Oh no. That’s not…”
“Yup. The barking is back. He hates my guts. He thinks I sent you away.”
“Let me talk to him.”
“Hang on.” I heard the cage open, and the barking got louder then Mitch said, “Okay, I’m putting the phone up to his ear.”
“Seamus? It’s me.”
The barking stopped.
I continued talking. “I really miss you. Please be a good boy. Okay? No more barking. Be good for Mitch, and I’ll come home soon. I love you.”
Mitch returned to the phone. “Friggin’ unbelievable.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Poor baby.”
“Poor baby? Poor me, stuck with a lovesick bird. Do you know he shit on me the other day?”
I laughed harder. It felt good.
“You think that’s funny, huh?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Well, if it’s making you laugh, it’s worth it. That’s gonna be my goal: to make you laugh at least once a day.”
Laughter got the best of me at least a dozen more times that night. Mitch stayed on the phone with me for hours until I fell asleep. I didn’t even remember saying goodbye.
The following evening, not only would I look like I had cancer, I’d feel like it for the first time, too.
When it rains, it pours. The next few days were brutal. I had to cancel our trip to the wig shop because I couldn’t stand up without feeling like I was going to throw up. The chemo nausea I kept hearing about had finally caught up with me. From the beginning, I had been taking Zofran, an anti-nausea med., but it didn’t seem to be working for me anymore.
The skin in my mouth also started getting really sore, and I developed mouth ulcers, which went along just great with the vomiting, by the way.
Seeing as though I couldn’t even get out of bed, it was hard for me to answer texts and talk on the phone. Even sitting up to watch television felt impossible.
Mitch called the house phone when I didn’t answer my cell, and my father had to tell him what was going on.
I heard my father’s voice downstairs. “Skylar has terrible nausea, Mitch. She’s not able to come to the phone. I’ll tell her you called.”
He’d be worried, and I hated not being able to explain it myself, but my inability to gather enough energy even to talk to him for a second was a testament to how bad I felt.
After my father hung up the phone, he peeked in on me. “That was Mitch, honey.”
I simply nodded and rolled over onto my side.
“You want some ginger ale?” he asked.
“Mom is coming a day early.”
I shook my head in acknowledgement.
My mother normally arrived every Friday night. My Dad and Lizete were cordial to her, and even though Mom was uncomfortable, she tried not to let it show. She’d spend most of her visits in my room, or we used to go out for a little when I was feeling up to it. Then, she’d sleep at her second cousin’s house about ten minutes away.
My phone chimed, and I knew it was Mitch. I needed to know what it said and struggled to reach over to the nightstand.
Your Dad told me. Don’t worry about texting back. I’m here anytime day or night, though. You’re gonna get through this. Counting the days til Saturday.
My already sick stomach was in knots at the thought of him seeing me like this. I’d have to see how I felt, but if my condition stayed the same, there was no way I could let him visit.
Lizete came into the room with some chicken broth. “M’ija, sit up. You have to eat something. You need your strength.”