I grew up on fairy tales, but very early--too early--in my childhood, I was gripped with a certainty that while I could play at it, I wasn't the main character because I wasn't beautiful. I don't have any crushing early memory that brought this on. No scabs to pick at here. I don't remember being upset by it--I wasn't upset that I didn't speak Spanish, either--it was a fact, to be known but not worth dwelling on.
By middle and high school, I had found my way to what I thought was a healthy place of understanding that real beauty was on the inside, that looks weren't everything, and the rest of the mantras. I learned to love the songs that made something of how the woman looked to just that one particular man who loved her. That was the key: to find that one boy who would see through all the layers of worldly unprettiness and see the charming girl underneath. A favorite movie musical of mine was West Side Story. "I feel pretty," Maria sings--lyrics that fit so well into the mythos: Why did she feel pretty? "For I'm loved by a pretty, wonderful boy."
I kept growing up, and came to a better adult place of seeing beauty, and seeing myself. I didn't stumble on some great truth; but over time, through little lessons here and there, small places of healing and shaking off the indoctrinations of the '90s, finding a happy place of self-image. I was beautiful in my way of being beautiful, like everyone else. I had made choices in high school and college--defiant, reactive choices--and now I began to unmake them. I had stopped wearing pinks and purples, had never been comfortable in skirts or makeup. As I grew I bought bright colors and high-heeled shoes, got over my fear of blinding myself with mascara. And I kept growing.
When I was diagnosed last year, sometime in the first couple days, someone said the word "chemo," and in quick succession I heard in my head its pair: "bald." I steeled myself--I remember choosing that word--purposefully, carefully steeling myself. I would be the strong woman, who did not need her hair to define her, who would not be shaken. But some of those middle school shadows jostled in forgotten boxes. I prayed and leaned into the poetry of scripture and songs, cried quietly with only God to hear, growled at myself for being so fragile, so predictably weak. "So you'll look like a dude," I told my mirror image one night. "You'll deal with it. There are worse things." And there are. But that was somehow not a helpful answer.
I stood in a grocery store line as a friend whispered if I'd noticed hair loss. I combed my hand through my hair confidently and we gaped helpless at the dozens, maybe hundreds of strands piled between my fingers. The world went silent for a second. This was happening now. The steeling began in earnest, and the next day we made a game of it--what better defense than humor. Hailee chopped at my hair with kitchen scissors, did my makeup at the kitchen island; Julie snapped pictures, first the informal process and later an autumnal photo shoot outside. We laughed, and made it something more than loss.
I came home. I kept the bathroom light off. I was sure I would come around, it would be okay. There are worse things, there are worse things. And the initial few glanced reflections were more surprise than anything--your hair is dead, so being bald doesn't feel any different--you need your other senses to know it's true. I had so steeled myself, had erected so many defensive walls that it took a few days. First, to realize I didn't need them--to realize it didn't hurt to see my reflection. And then, to see something else.
In passing the mirror--and, increasingly, stopping at the mirror, studying the picture in front of me--I found that I didn't need to fight for balance and self-image. I didn't have to argue or placate. I didn't have to tell myself that I was still beautiful around the eyes or mouth. Because being beautiful wasn't even in question. I would hear Maria's voice singing her song in my head: for the first time in memory, I felt pretty. I'd find myself catching half a glimpse of myself and giggling. I acted like a teenager who preens and gazes at their changing features. And all that makeup I had piled up to smear on, to convince the world that I was still female, became a way to celebrate, not to hide. I was joyful instead of ashamed, and what was behind the face was being healed, not breaking further.
"Yet God has made everything beautiful in its own time," Solomon wrote a few thousand years ago (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Like so much else that's easily simplified or misunderstood out of context, I digested that verse in high school to be followed by, "...Your time just isn't now. He'll make you beautiful... later. Stop asking." It was a little comforting--but mostly not. Now a new voice speaking those words was what came to me in my giggling and blushing. What I planned and prepared for? Yeah, the absolute mind-blowing opposite of that.
Is this the big headliner story of this process? Maybe not. I still have a brain tumor. I still have to take fairly serious drugs to tame it. Blood tests and MRIs and consults pepper my calendar for rest of this year and beyond. So who cares if I feel pretty?
I guess... me.
Less Maria's dancing, I suppose. More that the God of the universe, who created all things to move and work and evolve in every way, who will handle warmongers and peacemakers with perfect justice, cares enough to meet me in the middle of such a little, should-be-below-His-radar thing. "Those who look to the Lord for help will be radiant with joy," Solomon's father David wrote. "No shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened" (Psalm 34:5-6).
I keep this photo on my phone so that I stumble on it occasionally. Because the newness, the noticeableness of feeling pretty has become the new normal, and sometimes I need to see how much it struck me at the time. Not being pretty itself, but joy, the surprise, the gratitude of knowing my silly little need was heard and met and held and answered. Because Maria was right: I feel pretty because I'm loved.
"See that pretty face in that mirror there? Who could that attractive girl be?
Such a pretty face, such a pretty dress, such a pretty smile, such a pretty meeeee."
- Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story
"In my distress I prayed to the Lord,
and the Lord answered me and set me free."
- Psalm 118:5