Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Once I knew I’d have chemotherapy as part of my cancer treatment, I assumed I’d be bald for a while. My oncologist confirmed that fact at my first appointment: “You will lose your hair,” he noted. I just nodded. It would begin to thin within a week or two after the first treatment, he said, and likely shed in earnest after the second round.

Precog at work

Before I even lost the first strand, the vision of my bald self that kept appearing in my mind’s eye was of one of the Precogs in the 2002 movie Minority Report, a sci-fi thriller set in Washington DC in 2054. The Precogs are three mutated humans with extra-sensory powers who spend most of the film floating in a tank, “previsualizing” crimes so that Tom Cruise’s character can arrest potential perpetrators before any heinous acts take place.

Precog, rescued

The Precogs—specifically the character of Agatha Lively, played by Samantha Morton—are pale, near-bald, and wide-eyed, and for some reason, every time I tried to imagine myself without hair, that’s the image I saw.

I’m not sure why, as my one previous near-bald experience involved neither liquid immersion nor futuristic crime-fighting. I got a buzz cut in my mid-thirties when, at the university where I taught in Georgia, I played the lead role in Wit, Margaret Edson’s play about a stiff-lipped professor of British literature who faces ovarian cancer. Actors typically shave their heads for the role, and I was game. I made the transition gradually, having my bobbed hair cut short, then shorter, finally shaving it down to a buzz.

Weeks after -Wit-
Weeks after -Wit-

At that point I’m sorry to say I lost my nerve. Though I didn’t take it all the way to bare skin, that experience helped prepare me for the prospect of being bald once I became a real cancer patient who didn’t have a choice in the matter.

My approach was pragmatic. As the doctor had outlined it, the timeline of my treatments meant I could retain my regular haircut through my parents’ 50th anniversary party in mid-July. After that, a transition to a pixie cut would make the progressive loss less immediately obvious, and probably less traumatic. As I told an old friend at my folks’ gathering, I decided to relish, with intention, those last couple of weeks of having hair: I went a little brighter blonde than usual for fun, styled it deliberately each day, tinkered with a new curling wand I’d bought a month before. Once the hair was gone, my plan was to break out my vintage hats and scarf collection, and enjoy the inevitable simplification of my daily grooming routine with equal deliberateness.

The first significant thinning took place while Steve and I were visiting my parents for the anniversary party, a week after my first chemo. When I got up to go to the bathroom during the night, there in the mirror, by the light of the nightlight, I saw a distinct shadow on my left breast, a darkening of the skin where the cancer was located. Instinctively I understood the shadow to be a concentrating of the chemotherapy drugs in the mass. The first significant cluster of hair strands shed into my hands as I showered the next morning. So, the drugs were working. That was good.

The next week my Roanoke stylist Brandy gave me the anticipated pixie cut, accompanied by a welcome mimosa. The pixie got raves, but it only lasted about a week. I let my hair come out on its own until it got patchy, then invited my girlfriends over for a head-shaving porch party. I cried as the hair fell away, but we laughed together, too, and I felt surrounded by love and support as they rallied around and Steve kissed my head, which now matched his. When a few days later my thirteen-year-old nephew showed up shorn and shaven, having cut his long hair off to donate to Locks of Love, I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

My daily routine has shifted dramatically. No shampooing or conditioning, which I expected. No blow-dryer or flat-iron. But also: no leg or underarm or bikini shaving. The number of products I use regularly has been cut by at least a third. The change has made me wonder how many hours of my life, how much of my money, I’ve given over to hair all these years. I feel more confident when I’m coiffed and styled, when I wear makeup, but the investment is bigger than I’d ever reckoned. Now I’m left wondering: is all the time worth the trade-off?

For a while I did a double-take anytime I passed by a mirror. Wait, who’s that woman with the short hair/buzz cut/no hair? I wore something on my head most all the time at first, even sleeping with a blue wool beanie (sexy!) like Pa in his cap, T’was the Night Before Christmas-style. After the hot flashes set in (another side effect courtesy of chemo), I was almost glad not to have a hat of hair closing off the handy heat-vent that is my bare scalp.

Ulta flyer
Whose idea was this?

Compared to the prospect of permanent loss and alteration of my breasts, temporary hair loss is just that—temporary, and not so terrible. But there have been a few irksome moments. On our recent visit to Asheville, I spent a day at the Grove Park Inn Spa. As the attendant took me and another patron on a tour, she pointed out all the luxurious goodies we’d have access to in the showers: citrus shampoo and conditioner, body wash, shaving cream. I smiled ruefully. Well, yay for body wash. Just a few days ago I got an Ulta Beauty catalog-advertisement in the mail that made me shake my head. The cover advertised two events: a special promotion for October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the month’s beauty focus, “The Gorgeous Hair Event,” tagline “Every Girl’s Way to Good Hair Days.” The first fourteen pages of the ad are devoted solely to hair care products and tools. Then follows a two-page spread on Breast Cancer Research Foundation initiatives–two support options are getting a shampoo/cut or pink hair extensions. Someone did not think that combo through fully, methinks.

Grove Park Spa Pool
Spa pool oasis

No one seems to mind the state of my head, really, though that day in the spa, I did get a few startled glances from other patrons when I first shed my headscarf. As I lay back in one of the pools, I imagine I really did resemble a Precog, ready to send and receive messages from the larger store of humanity. Across the room, a man with an artificial leg removed his prosthetic and slid into another pool; an elderly woman helped a frailer friend navigate stone tile steps. As I floated, listening to the underwater music, I gazed up through the skylight above me, watching the clouds shapeshift in the blue beyond. I had no predictions to make, for ill or good. I simply rested, my shiny head and healing body absorbing the truth of our shared imperfections: we’re all bald beneath our hair.


Breast Cancer Book Club: David Whyte’s Consolations

A dear friend of mine who has been doing restorative yoga with me shared several poems during our sessions, one written by acclaimed writer David Whyte. I loved the poem so much that I looked up more of Whyte’s work and came across his 2014 book, Consolations (Many Rivers Press). It’s my first offering to what I am calling the Breast Cancer Book Club, readings I know or discover that bring me insight and solace during this long process.

Whyte Consolations 2

The subtitle of Consolations is “The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.” The book is arranged like a dictionary, each entry a brief meditation three to five pages long. Whyte opens with the word “Alone” and traces through such words as “Crisis,” “Gratitude,” “Honesty,” “Robustness,” and “Silence,” among many others. His language is lucid, lyrical, and straightforward, and his insights are both comforting and challenging.

For example, of gratitude Whyte writes, “Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us…. Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously part of something, rather than nothing” (89).

Whyte Consolations HelpOn courage: “Courage is a word that tempts us to think outwardly, to run bravely against opposing fire, to do something under besieging circumstance…but a look at its linguistic origins is to look in a more interior direction and toward its original template, the old Norman French, Coeur, or heart. Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences” (39).

My friend and I have been drawing upon Whyte’s book during restorative yoga, as she reads a passage aloud, often several times, for both of us to absorb as I breathe into a held pose. I have also enjoyed selecting a single entry to read and contemplate before I go to sleep at night, or when I first wake up, or sitting under a tree in the neighboring park. The short, rich chapters work beautifully as individual meditations, formal or informal.

Whyte Consolations RestI’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys contemplating the world and how we exist in it, though I think many of the entries hold a special resonance for those currently engaging a challenge or change. Its words have brought me healing, wisdom, and solace, and I will be returning to it again and again.

Happy reading!


Everywhere’s a Metaphor

You know how when you buy a new car, suddenly that make and model starts showing up on every street you drive, every lot where you park? You’d never noticed it before you owned said car yourself, but suddenly it’s everywhere?

When you get diagnosed with cancer, the same thing happens. Instantly, it seems, every magazine you pick up has an ad for a new cancer drug, or a story of someone’s battle with cancer, or both. Every novel you read features a character with a mother or brother or friend who struggles with the disease (often used as shorthand for explaining the character’s current problems, especially if the mother’s/brother’s/friend’s cancer resulted in death). Watch any TV series long enough, and there will be a cancer mention, if not a full-on plot-line. Turn on NPR, and it comes up in that day’s interview.

Was I just not paying attention before now? Sometimes I wonder. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who reveal, once they hear I have breast cancer, that they are survivors: the technician who administered my pre-chemo EKG, a nurse practitioner I saw for an unrelated issue, my massage therapist. Friends have told me about mothers, aunts, sisters, co-workers who’ve traveled this path. It’s not that cancer had never entered my personal sphere: my sister-in-law is a six-year breast cancer survivor, and my husband, though his journey took place long before we met, is twenty-nine years cancer-free. But now I see it everywhere. Now it feels epidemic.

And with it come the metaphors.


Professional hazard: when you’re a writerly type, and you’re trying to make sense of the weird detour your life has taken, the metaphors are dogged. You’re in the early stages of diagnosis and testing, and you drive to the beach. The weather is gorgeous for a few miles, then suddenly the gray gathers ahead, and your road leads straight into dark, threatening clouds. Rain pummels the car with such force you slow to a crawl. It lets up, a breather. You keep driving, round another bend, the storm crashes again. Just when it seems you’ll have to pull off the road to breathe without fear, the road bends westward, and the sky ahead shines clear and blue. You even catch a glimpse of a rainbow before it shimmers away. A bank of black clouds still hovers to the left. Will the rain follow you? Will the road turn directly into its path again?

You walk a mountain path through a nearby park. The first 100 yards of the trail are open, exposed to the blazing sun. It’s hot and uncomfortable until you reach the wooded portion of the trail that winds through the trees, where the dappled shade and a light breeze keeps the heat in check. It’s an out-and-back route, so you’ll trace those same 100 yards at the end of your walk. They weren’t fun at the beginning, and you know they’ll be even harder once you’re tired and spent and sweaty from the rest of your walk. But the only way home is back through.


According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Chemotherapy, I think, is a first-rate test of a first-rate intelligence—and it’s a tough one, physically and psychologically. Embracing chemo means embracing toxic chemicals and nasty side effects that feel a lot like “harm,” even as you understand they’re doing “good” by helping you defeat the threat of the cancer.

Though the comparison feels more cliché than metaphor, chemo, for me, has been a roller coaster. Most breast cancer patients who have chemotherapy are on an every 2-week or 3-week cycle. As a two-weeker, I have one good week and one tough week. To concretize: imagine you’re going to be hit by a truck and catch the flu at the same time. For a week, you have intense body aches, nerve flare-ups, fatigue, nausea or other digestive issues, headaches, some fever. The worst passes after four to five days, followed by a couple days of lingering, less intense symptoms. You feel better, maybe almost normal, for a week. Then you willingly throw yourself in front of the truck again, because the truck is going to save your life.

I’ve been lucky, all things considered. My treatments have consisted of two sets of drugs, the first four a combination of Cytoxan and Adriamycin, and the second four rounds of Taxol. The first were the hardest, in part I think because of the ripple effect of adding drug-upon-drug to control side effects. In addition to the two chemo drugs in my drip, there was a steroid and two anti-nausea medications. I was also given a drug to boost my white-blood-cell count the day after chemo. Add Claritin to counter the bone pain brought on by the white-blood-cell booster, two at-home nausea meds should I need them, and laxative because all the anti-nausea meds cause constipation. I was already taking Ativan to sleep at night and Tylenol for discomfort. We’re talking twelve drugs going into a body that until a few weeks before hadn’t been processing anything more complicated than ibuprofen and the occasional Tums. Thankfully, I didn’t need all that was on offer—nausea wasn’t a major issue for me; I’ve only thrown up twice since I was eighteen. For what it’s worth, I did spend those eight weeks belching like a seventh grader. This phenomenon was not caught on camera.


Taxol, for most, is more easily tolerated and requires fewer maintenance drugs, though I am in the 20% of patients (yay!) who experience fairly pronounced bone and muscle pain, and the cumulative fatigue that’s been promised is setting in. But on the whole I’ve done well. I’ve hydrated like crazy, brought yoga and massage on board to help, stayed in communication with my doctors so adjustments could be made, and (knock on wood) had no major allergic reactions. The worst event was a single scary blood pressure crash one evening after the first treatment.

The being yanked back and forth has been, perhaps, the toughest piece. The days I’m out and about, dressed, seeing friends, playing with hats: those are the good days. I seize them joyfully because I can (and because after a week parked on the sofa binge-watching The Mindy Project, I am restless and bored and eager to interface with actual people). It’s necessary to find and relish the joy, to resist succumbing to the undertow of I feel good now, but I know I’m going to feel bad again. The upside of knowing: I can plan around it. The downside: the pressure of trying to cram in everything I need and want to do, especially with increasing limitations. At first, I was fully functional during my “good” weeks. Then I started limiting myself to no more than 2 outside-the-house commitments or errands per day, then one, and I’m rapidly heading toward an every-other-day energy conservation model.

In truth, all of life moves this way, back and forth between the strong days and the hard ones. In a way, having some measure of predictability is a rare gift. In our everyday lives, none of us knows when such shifts will occur, when we will turn into the path of the storm, when the trail will grow hot and steep, when or if the rainbow might reappear.

My current shifts are dramatic and clearly delineated, but the biggest change is in my own awareness. These shifts have always been. They will always be. I can neither anticipate nor thwart them, and trying to do so just makes more wasted energy. The best, the only, place for me, for any of us to rest is here, now, in this intricate present.

porch oasis


Heads Up! #2: A Hat with History

∼ Beautiful, quirky vintage hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (currently bald) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼

The red hat featured here belonged to my mother Margaret, who purchased it at a milliner’s shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she was a teenager. The shallow crown and wide brim suggest it is what’s known as a “cartwheel” hat. She wore this red blocked beauty, trimmed with a bow, to church (along with white gloves, as that was the fashion for young ladies then) during her high school years.

I am wearing it to celebrate being three-quarters of the way through my chemotherapy treatments. Hooray!

Heads up!

 Photographer: Steve Prisley

Still Life, Still Celebrating: Special Anniversary Edition

njm_3015-001One year ago last Monday, Steve and I stood atop the Rooftop of the Center in the Square surrounded by family and friends and said “I do.” It was a cloudy, almost blustery day, but the rain held off, and we had a beautiful ceremony with our beloved mountains as backdrop, and a wonderful evening with dancing, cupcakes, heartfelt toasts that made us laugh and cry, and so much love and joy I thought I might burst.

I’ve often heard people say the first year of marriage is the hardest. There have been some adjustments to be made as Steve and I settled in to our new home (“Do you really want to hang that pink and yellow painting in the living room?” “Can you please close the hamper to keep the dirty clothes smell inside?”) Slowly we found our way to shared spaces that make us both smile, and we discovered new “together” routines that we love, honor and cherish.

My cancer diagnosis added some unexpected complications to that “first year is the hardest” admonition. I don’t think when we said our vows that either of us realized just how soon, and how dramatically, we’d be practicing the “in sickness and in health” portion of our pledge to one another.

imageBack when Steve and I celebrated our one-year dating anniversary, we had traveled to Seattle for a conference that same week. While touring around Pike Place Market, we hit upon the idea to honor our milestone by purchasing a piece of artwork jointly. We had already discerned that our tastes in art didn’t always converge–Steve preferred the representational, while I looked first for color, pattern, and mood–and though we weren’t yet engaged, we knew we were heading toward a future together. At the market we found a Scott Alberts woodcut of Mount Rainier with a cobalt blue sky. Steve liked the wood, I liked the color, and we both liked the mountain, which was recognizable but not straight realism. Sold!

The traditional first wedding anniversary gift is paper, so Steve had the wonderful idea that we should reprise our joint-artwork purchase: instead of each buying separate gifts, we could look for a watercolor or painting on paper that we both liked during our brief celebratory visit to Asheville, where we’d shared several special moments, including the day when Steve met my dad, and our honeymoon.

imageAs we wandered around some of the downtown shops and galleries, we kept our eyes open. Nothing much grabbed us until we saw a beautiful Jane Voorhees giclee print of a watercolor. The colors were rich and vibrant, the scene impressionistic rather than realistic, yet the painting clearly captured a Blue Ridge mountain landscape. When we picked it up and read its title, “these healing mountains,” it seemed meant for us.

Our first anniversary looked pretty different than what I would have described, if you’d asked me to project a vision of it back on our wedding day (especially the hairdo I’d be sporting…). Still, I was able to stroll through a city filled with good memories, enjoy delicious food, and let the beauty of the mountains sooth me, all with my husband, my love, right by my side.

It is enough.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

I remember only a few details from my appointment with the breast surgeon the Tuesday following the MRI. I remember I wore a black t-shirt and a wraparound raw silk skirt I’d bought at a street fair some years back. She wore a simple black sheath. I remember her saying, “We’re going to get the scary stuff out of the way, and then we’re going to forget about it and move ahead.” Then she drew a picture to explain triple negative breast cancer and reassured me that the “Stage 3” was automatically determined by the size of the mass and the local lymph node involvement, that she hadn’t seen anything to make her think there was more going on. I remember shaking uncontrollably. I remember her asking, as she felt my breast, if it were possible the lump had been that hard and pronounced for long, her whispering in my ear as she hugged me good-bye, “We’re going to be hopeful and prayerful. Hopeful and prayerful.”

img_7893Despite her reassurances that there was no immediate evidence of metastasis, I would need a CT scan and a bone scan to be certain the cancer hadn’t progressed beyond the local nodes. I kept shaking, so the staff moved mountains to schedule the tests as soon as possible, three days away, that Friday. Results would likely come after the weekend.

The verb “wait” dates to circa 1200, “to watch with hostile intent, to lie in wait for,” hearkening back to the Old North French waitier, “to watch,” from the Old French gaitier, “watch out, be on one’s guard.” It takes a few centuries before the specific meaning to “endure a period of waiting” is recorded, in 1849.

Steve and I had been waiting to tell family and friends about my diagnosis until we had solid information, a sense of scope and plan. Plus, I knew announcing it to others would make it inescapably real. But it was becoming increasingly impossible to sit on the news. We were scheduled to travel to Georgia in a couple of weeks to help host my parents’ 50th anniversary party, and they’d begun asking questions about the specifics of our visit.

img_7896The noun weight comes from the Old English gewiht, “weighing, weight, downward force of body, heaviness.” The figurative sense of “burden” arrives in the late 14th century.

My parents were celebrating a milestone. I didn’t want to burden them with distraction and worry. But the uncertainties were becoming too heavy to bear alone. I remember crying through the phone call. I remember their calm, steady voices. I remember the sense of relief afterwards.

The use of the phrase “waiting game” is first recorded in 1835. Early on, it referred specifically to a horse-racing strategy for horses whose strength was speed over endurance.

Steve and I had also been looking forward to a trip to Folly Beach. We’d originally planned to leave the Friday the scans were scheduled, but we delayed our departure to Saturday. We’d make an overnight trip back to Roanoke on Monday to see the oncologist, then drive back to South Carolina and finish our week at the shore. It was the best compromise we could manage: we’d have our beach trip, and we’d have a plan.

The two days we spent at the beach not knowing whether the cancer had already spread felt like two centuries.

The evening we arrived, Steve left me to walk on the beach while he went into town to pick up some groceries. I strolled along the edge of the breaking surf, breathing in the salt air, gazing out at a distant horizon that made me feel both seen and insignificant. The sky was dark and heavy with clouds, a storm over the water. I turned around to see the sun beginning to set behind me. As it dropped behind another bank of clouds, it outlined one with a bright halo, its rays splaying dramatically across the sky. Light behind a cloud: was this hope?

img_7909The literal meaning of the verb “weight,” as in “to load with weight” is recorded first in 1747. Its figurative meaning, to load the mind with weight, appeared earlier, as early as the 1640s.

The side effects of chemotherapy are often debilitating and painful. Knowing your body will be permanently altered by surgery is disorienting, even devastating. But the waiting, all the waiting: for appointments, for surgery dates, for results, for reports, for recovery, for any piece of positive news. Ask a cancer patient, and I think many will tell you: all the waiting is the hardest part.

We got the call from the surgeon’s office Monday as we were driving back to Roanoke to meet with the oncologist: my scans were clear. You know your world has flipped upside down and backwards when “stage 3 breast cancer,” a diagnosis that left you shaking in fear just days before, takes on the modifier “only” and suddenly feels like the first good news you’ve had in weeks.

The nurse had tried to call with results late Friday afternoon. I remembered: I’d been on the phone with a delivery company when an unknown local number rang through. I’d started to hang up to answer it, but I couldn’t get a word in with the woman talking furniture. When I checked voice mail afterwards, my phone said it was full, no new messages.

The sense of “wait” meaning to “remain in some place” is from the 14th century.

img_7900-editedGiven a choice, I would not have elected to suffer through those two days of waiting and wondering. But it threw my perspective into sharp focus, gave me a fierce appreciation for the beauty all around me: the gritty give of warm sand under my feet; the spicy bite of fresh shrimp cooked with Old Bay seasoning; the constellation of freckles on my husband’s smiling face. And the sun shining out from behind a darkened cloud.

We’ll wait again, and again. And while we do, my heart breathes every gorgeous moment.

All etymological references are adapted from the Online Etymology Dictionary. Thanks to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (via Steve) for the title inspiration.

Do Good to Feel Good: Thank Someone Who Made a Difference

Science–and common sense–tells us that doing something good for others is good for us: it raises our endorphins, boosts our self-esteem, gives us an emotional lift. Doing good is good for others and for healing ourselves.

So, in this feature, I will occasionally suggest a small action each of us can take to make the world a better place. I will if you will!


Say Thanks to Someone Who Made a Difference

Is there someone in your past or present life–perhaps a teacher, a caregiver, a mentor–who made a real difference to you, personally or professionally, and about whom you’ve sometimes thought: I should tell ______ what a difference s/he made?

Now’s your chance! I recommend writing a letter, card, or email (or go public with a blog or even a Facebook post!), so the recipient can hang on to your thanks and revisit the good feeling it will no doubt elicit. But you know your recipient best, and a call or other intentional communication will also surely be much appreciated.

Feel free to post your intentions in a comment below, if you are so inclined.

Do good to feel good!


MRI: The Sounds of Scanning

After my initial diagnosis and prior to meeting with a surgeon, I was sent for an MRI so the medical team could get a clearer picture of the size and spread of the cancer in my breast. My appointment was at 8 am, and I sat sleepily in the chair across from the administering technician, unsure what to expect. I knew an MRI used magnets, and I was pretty sure I was going to have to spend some time inside a big tube, a fact that made my claustrophobic self shudder.

The technician, named Steve—a good omen, I thought, his sharing my husband’s name—told me that first he needed to ask a series of questions to make sure I didn’t have any metal on or in my body. I’d left my jewelry at home as instructed, so I didn’t think there was an issue, but the inquisition was protocol.

MRI-Steve clicked a few keys on the computer in front of him. “Do you have anything inside your body that you were not born with?”

Later, I’d wish I’d been quick enough to offer “cancer.” Instead, I said, “Um, contact lenses?”

He chuckled a little.  “Good answer.”

He clicked another key and proceeded to the next question. No, no pacemaker. No artificial joints. No piercings except my ears, no tattoos (some ink has metallic compounds), and no, I’ve never been a welder. Wait, what? Apparently welders often have tiny traces of metal in their eyes, and if they do, the machine can pull the traces out and blind the welder in the process. Ow.

Finally MRI-Steve asked what kind of music I liked. While I was in the machine I would hear some noises—a kind of clunking, and then a series of buzzes. “Your test will only last 30 minutes or so, so it’s not too bad,” he said. “Some can take an hour or more.” Patients were provided with headphones hooked up to Spotify or Pandora to mitigate the noise.

“Oh, well, I like the Indigo Girls,” I said. “I just saw them in concert last night.”

I wondered what he’d have said if I answered “heavy metal.”

∼ ∼ ∼

After inserting a magnet-friendly IV via a needle that left behind only a tiny plastic tube, MRI-Steve walked me back to the dimly lit room that housed the MRI machine, an impressively large and imposing white, plastic extra-deep donut with a gurney-like table jutting out from the near side of the opening. I thought it odd they were playing club music, techno with a heavy, steady bass beat: ka-thunk, ka-thunk ka-thunk. Then I realized the rhythm was coming from the machine. If those were the clunks MRI- Steve had referred to, the noise wasn’t too bad.

 MRI, AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh

Steve left me with his assistant Shevonne to help me get settled on the table. Lightly padded and lined with a sheet, it was shaped like a body. Close in, it looked like a sleeping capsule in an old sci-fi film, or maybe a mummification crypt with a shroud. Shevonne pointed to two pronounced breast-shaped imprints. I was to position myself so that each of my breasts hung down into one of the cups, where cameras were located. I decided not to think too much about how that worked as I climbed aboard. At Shevonne’s direction, I stretched my arms out in front of me, like Supergirl in flying mode.

I was given a squeeze-bulb call button to hold in my left hand, and Shevonne wrapped some of the tubing for the IV around my thumb on the right. Midway through the procedure I’d be given a contrast agent, and the machine would track its progress through my veins. The face cradle allowed me to breathe freely and had a long slit to accommodate opening my eyes. When I’d told MRI-Steve my fear of small spaces, he’d reassured me that since I’d be facedown and looking into a mirror, I’d be less aware of being inside the tube. Shevonne placed the earphones on my head and asked if anything tickled or itched. Once inside, no scratching allowed.

I felt the gurney lift up a few inches, then move forward. I peered down through the eye slit. I couldn’t see myself, so maybe I’d misunderstood about a mirror. As I slid further into the machine, it looked as if the floor dropped away below me, revealing another small room below.

Within seconds, I was dizzy with vertigo.

MRI-Steve’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “Everything okay?”

My head spun. “I’m really, really dizzy,” I said. “Is that normal?”

Amy Ray

“Um, no, not really,” he said. There was a pause. “Sometimes if you didn’t eat breakfast…?”

Slowly the dizziness abated. “I think it’s starting to subside,” I said. The Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” played through my headphones. “I went to the doctor. I went to the mountains…”

“We’re going to start your test now. It will be loud, so don’t be startled.”

“Okay,” I said. I closed my eyes and pictured the finale of the previous night’s concert, the euphoria I’d felt singing along with the Girls and the audience to the song now playing in my ears.

Then a fire alarm went off.

∼ ∼ ∼

MNAAH. MNAAH. When MRI-Steve had said “buzz” and “loud,” I had not translated it as “You know, like that fire alarm that used to make you leap out of bed, adrenaline coursing and heart pounding, for 3 AM college dorm fire drills.” MNAAH. MNAAH. MNAAH. It continued for another 30 seconds. Then it stopped. Music returned. A second round. Musical interlude. Then another set of noises, with a higher pitch and faster pulse, an old-fashioned dial tone on steroids, quickly supplanted by a light bamboo-stick percussion that morphed into an electronic chicken, bok-bok-bok-bok-BAWK on the right, then loud bamboo sticks, more buzzy dial tone BEEP-BEEP-BEEP, more soft bamboo and the chicken circled around to my left, bok-bok-bok-bok-BAWK ticketa ticketa ticketa BEEP-BEEP-BEEEEP. Caesura. “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.”

"A Clockwork Orange," Malcom McDowell, 1971 Warner

Maybe they ensconced you in a tube to keep you from fleeing the racket. I felt like I’d landed somewhere between a bad carnival funhouse and an auditory version of Ludovico’s re-programming technique in A Clockwork Orange. Another cycle of the same, then another, each a little longer than the one before. In between, music played through the headphones: a tinny war protest song about not marching no more, some traditional bluegrass pickin’. Not my fave, but preferable to two minutes of fire alarm. MNAAH. MNAAH.

MRI-Steve’s voice filtered in. “We’ve put the contrast in, so two more minutes of pictures, then you’ll be more than halfway done.”

Halfway? I was reminded of my hiker friend Jeff’s comment about climbing steep mountains: “Usually when you think you’re almost there, it really means you’ve only gone halfway.”

A coolness spread from my right arm down to my hand, and for a few moments an astringent, metallic taste filled my mouth and stung my nostrils, then disappeared. As the cool crept up both arms and dissipated, the fire alarm sounded again. When it stopped, an Old Navy commercial was playing.

“Nine minutes,” MRI-Steve said.

I tried to breathe evenly. Jeff Buckley sang “Hallelujah,” and the electronic chickens circled once more around my head.

∼ ∼ ∼

Robot Bird, Artist Jessica JoslinWhen they finally slid me out, I watched the white floor of the little room below rise up again. I had to put my head down and lie still for a few moments before I could stand up. “Dizzy,” I said into the cradle.

Once upright and retying my robe, I put it together: a mirror in the head cradle gave the illusion of a disappearing floor, an empty space below the machine, to counter claustrophobia. As my body moved forward and back on a flat plane, my eyes perceived I was moving up and down: ergo, vertigo. It really was a sort of funhouse trick.

Queasy and rattled, I headed to the dressing room. It would be several days before we’d find out the results of the imaging. It was too bad that sound waves couldn’t dissolve cancer cells the same way they did kidney stones—I’d be well on my way to cured. In the dressing room mirror, my forehead sported a bright red imprint from the pressure of the cradle, while my body, everywhere but my breasts, was marked with wrinkles from the sheet.

My Steve raised his eyebrows at my unsteadiness when I emerged. I wanted to warn the other guy sitting there, awaiting his own test, but how exactly do you explain being assaulted by the squawks of unseen robot birds?

I was sorely in need of a nap. I just hoped the chickens wouldn’t follow me into my dreams.


Photo credits:

Welder:; MRI Machine: AP Photo by Jeff McIntosh; Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, personal photo; A Clockwork Orange still, Malcolm McDowell, Warner 1971:; Robot Chicken, Artist Jessica Joslin: