It was the red hair we shared that started up the conversation. (Mine was thanks to a great stylist, hers her own natural color). We were sitting opposite each other in the gynecological oncologist’s waiting room. Her parents sat in the seats next to her. There was anguish on both of their faces.
She and I talked about our hair, how mine had been red when my parents adopted me when I was three months old, but later it turned blonde, then blah, then when I was dating Mike he said something about me having the right coloring to be a red-head and I told him about when I was a baby and long story short, I’d been having my hair colored that way for about three years and something I never knew before but knew then was there’s a kind of red-head sorority out there. Red heads catch each other’s eye, nod sometimes. It’s a thing. She laughed and told me it sure is a thing. Her hair was red from day-one. In fact, did I want to see a picture? She just had her hair cut that morning.
In the picture her thick, silky straight red hair extended down past her waist. “I had it cut so I could be in control of it a little more.” “Starting chemo?” I asked. She nodded. Tears slipped silently down her mother’s sweetly wrinkled face. Her stoic father looked at his shoes.
She showed me pictures of her two sons. Her elder son was the age of my middle one. He was a marine and a new daddy. Her grandson was a fine specimen of a baby. I said, “You’re too young to be a grandma.” She told me she was fifty-one. (I was fifty-three). “Do you have grandchildren?” she asked. “No, not yet.” She said she was glad to have her grand baby this early. Her ovarian cancer will never go away. She had surgery but it was some horrid, virulent strain that always comes back, in some new organ, in some new unpredictable place. Surgery can remove it, chemo can slow it down, but it will always come back. For the rest of her life, however long she has to live–she will be fighting cancer, or waiting to fight cancer, wondering where it lies lurking within her. Her dad studied the palms of his hands, her mother daubed a hanky across her cheeks. She said, “I’m glad I get to know my grandson now.”
She asked me, “Are you okay? I mean, nobody is sitting here in this waiting room because everything’s wonderful.” I told her I was okay. I had uterine cancer, but they caught it very early and I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation, only surgery. “So you’re here for a check-up?” She asked. Not exactly, I told her. “I have some bleeding. I’m not healing up right. It’s just scar-tissue so it’s not scary. It’s just a pain. If it doesn’t heal they might want to re-do part of my surgery.” And I told her, because one can say things in the waiting room of the gynecological oncologist’s office that one wouldn’t ordinarily tell a brand new acquaintance, (and because her Dad had excused himself to go find a restroom), “really, the worst part of this whole thing for me now is that Mike and I are still kind-of newly-weds. We were both alone a long time before we met each other and, well, this just stinks. Sitting here, hearing your story, knowing what you’re up against I feel guilty even being sad, but I am sad. Every time I come for an appointment Dr. Nadkarni tells me Mike and I better wait another twelve weeks and then another twelve weeks before being intimate. What a dream-wife I’ve turned out to be.”
Quickly I said, “Truly, I’m sorry. My situation is nothing compared to yours.”
And this was her gift to me. She told me there’s no reason to compare. She told me, “You get to be sad. I get to be sad. Both of us have perfectly good reasons to be sad.”
Isn’t that a trap we sometimes fall into? Not wanting to lapse into self-pity, we err as well by not allowing ourselves the grace to grieve something difficult. My difficult situation doesn’t have to be as difficult as someone else’s difficult situation for it to qualify as legitimate cause for heartache.
“We both get to be sad,” my sister in the red-haired gynecological oncology sorority said. And her quietly weeping mother nodded her head.