This is part 4 in a series about my husband's fight with Hepatitis C. You can go back and read the various posts here. (one, two, three)
Moonlight glints on his hair; mostly brown with bits of grey. I'm awake, despite the hour, staring at the back of his head. He tosses and turns, trying to make himself more comfortable, and his voice is thick with sleep as he begins to mumble.
"Hair. I'm losing too much hair."
Gently I reach out and touch his head, stroking the softness before snuggling up to his back in a hug as we both fall asleep again. I'm not supposed to know about the cancer - it was a mistake, really, slipped out by one of his friends in casual conversation. At 21, cancer doesn't seem real, or at least something that happened to people I love.
Cancer didn't win the day 20 years ago, and while I didn't initially appreciate the bullet we dodged until I was older, a black cloud sat, menacing, in the back of my mind. Cancer comes back.
Would it? If so, when? Every sneeze, every illness, every time he lost weight or didn't eat much because he wasn't hungry, I wondered.
Do you ever have a premonition? Something that you could swear you just know, in your bones? I knew, even back then, that around 40, I'd lose someone I loved dearly to cancer. I suppose that these days it's a high possibility once you reach 40 anyway, but back then, even at the tender age of 21, I knew.
Last fall Anne sent me pictures of herself shortly after she shaved off her hair. Tiny and pale like a little bird, all that was left was a downy fuzz. Cancer was real now, with a visual reminder that you couldn't ignore even if you tried. Before it was okay to pretend it wasn't happening, but now, not so much.
"You know, some people shave their heads for their friends to show support. I don't want you to do that." Her hand absentmindedly ran over her head as she talked. "Your hair is beautiful, don't you dare cut it."
The giggle burbled up and out before I could stop myself. "Sweetie, I love you, but I'm sorry. I couldn't shave my head for even you. I mean me, bald? Are you kidding?"
Our laughter filled the kitchen and she reached over to grip my hand.
"Really, I don't mind. It feels better. Cleaner. My scalp itched and hurt anyway, and I love the hats." Hats were spread out on the table in front of us - pinks and blues, greens, purples, every colour under the rainbow, all lovingly knitted by her mother. A beautiful rainbow of wool, each crafted to go with a different outfit, some to match her eyes, or even the new glasses she bought. More than just wool and a way to hide the obvious, they were love.
It was hard to contain the tears on the way home that day.
He was standing in the kitchen when I arrived home a little later than usual, as I had circled the block a few times to make sure my tears were finally dried before I stepped in the door.
Have to be strong. Don't let them see you cry. You can do this.
There were clippers in his hand.
"Shave it off. All of it. I can't stand it anymore."
His scalp had been bothering him for awhile. The medications, as he described them, made his scalp feel like needles were driving into his head every time he took a shower. His scalp was so tender, itchy, and uncomfortable that all he wanted was relief, by any means. We had tried various shampoos, but no matter what we did, nothing soothed his poor head.
I stood behind him, the buzz of the clippers whirring while I moved them front to back, the salt and pepper hair of his that I love so much falling to the floor. When he wasn't looking some tears silently fell with it. So much for being strong.
So this is for better or worse, in sickness and health, even if it means i have to shave your head so you have some relief, or sit and watch you sleep on the couch, night after night. How some nights I've sat and watched, phone nearby, because I'm so afraid you may not wake up. How I listen to every breath, every sigh, and with each one hope and pray that you will make it through. You have to make it through. I'm not sure I'll be able to cope if you don't. I can't cope now-she's dying, and you just aren't allowed to die too.
Finally all his hair is shorn and is scattered on the floor, neatly swept up, and we're finished. He ran his hand over his head and grinned.
"That's much better. Thank you!" A quick kiss and he was back to the couch to rest for the evening.
I joined him later, a hot cup of tea nearby and Twitter for solace, ready to hold vigil once again - but first, I had something else to do. Something that even he didn't know about because I still fought to be strong, but Anne let me in on a little secret and finally, I remembered what to do when I couldn't handle any more heartache. I slinked off to the shower and with the warm water running over my body, began to sob.
Nobody hears you cry in the shower.