I met Ingrid when I was bald. It was a few months after the handsome Dr. Lanin had removed the malignant tumor from my left breast, and I was walking to stave off an impending sense of doom. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon. I was watching her walk briskly a few yards ahead of me. She was a handsome woman of a certain age and I caught up with her on purpose, thinking I might have found a friend to walk with on a regular basis.
We struck up a conversation and it's hard to talk to someone when you're stone bald without mentioning it, and of course you don't want to grab their shirtfront and shriek, "I have CANCER! Please be my friend!" Nor does it seem appropriate to just breezily mention it: "You may have noticed that I have no hair." And see where that goes.
I said something somewhere in between, I think, but it turned out that Ingrid had had breast cancer, too, more than 15 years ago, and she looked perfectly fine. She looked more than fine, actually. She was tall and strong. She was from Germany and had that hardy European look about her, like she had just come back from hiking in the mountains all day and was ready for some strudel.
I REALLY DIDN'T WANT TO GO THERE
The reason I bring her up is because I never would have signed up for an American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Walk if she hadn't asked me to. We had readily become fast friends and when she told me about the walk, my hair had grown back and I was so ready to put all that behind me. I didn't want to revisit any of it. I wanted to pretend that it never happened.
But Ingrid was my friend. I admired her. She is the smartest woman I have ever met, well-read, carefully opinionated, thoughtful, wise, blah blah blah. So I figured it would not kill me to do something for a new friend I thought so much of.
Ingrid was all pumped up. She goes every year.
A WALK IN THE PARK
There were cute post-pubescent boys wearing pink T-shirts directing traffic in the parking lot and knots of people carrying coolers, pom poms, and little pink flags with "Debbie", or "Janice", or "Eileen" stenciled on them. Hundreds of people. Thousands.
We hiked up to the staging area where there was an enormous pink balloon arch and vendors selling pink sweatshirts and hoodies, pink T-shirts and gym bags and sunglasses, pink shoelaces and pink socks and pink running gear and pink head scarves and jewelry and windbreakers and rain jackets.
I was overwhelmed. Ingrid mingled comfortably, radiating joy and health. We were given pink homecoming queen sashes that said SURVIVOR and badges to stick on our chests that said "I have survived (Fill in the blank.) years."
I dutifully wrote ONE and felt like I shouldn't be there. I wasn't really a survivor yet, was I?
There were a lot of groups who brought covered dishes and checkered tablecloths and set up in the picnic area before the walk, and when the walk started, they created huge blotches of matching T-shirts, which, by the way, was the best thing about the whole event, the amazingly clever stupid T-shirts.
A FEW OF MY FAVORITES
Save the ta-ta's
Of course they're fake. The real ones tried to kill me.
Cancer messed with the wrong bitch.
Save a life. Grope your wife.
I lost my hair, not my sense of humor.
Got boobs? Check 'em.
Don't let cancer steal second base.
Big and small: let's save 'em all.
The walk stretched over half a mile, trailing around the edges of a state park, but Ingrid and I walked down to the beach after about a half-hour. We walked thoughtfully by the water, feeling blessed, I guess, but I also felt disconnected, as though I was supposed to feel something more. People were bursting with joy. A friend of my son's saw me and threw her arms around me. She was crying. "I'm so proud of you," she said into my hair. My new hair.
While I was going through treatment, I was a lone voice crying in the wilderness, surrounded by a small circle of friends. I was tiny and vulnerable and dying. But at the American Cancer Society's walk against breast cancer, I found that I was a living, pulsating part of a global energy searching for a cure.
Cancer messed with the wrong bitch.
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