Rules, Side Effects, and the Human Will

At 63, my father had an abundance of silver hair that he was very proud of. He also had cancer. Awaiting the start of chemo, he was very worried about his beautiful hair falling out; the specter of his naked head on public view was unsettling for him. We sat together near the window in his hospital room, warmed by the muted light of an early fall afternoon.  He asked me if I thought it would be acceptable for him to wear a beret indoors once his hair fell out. He was unsure and insecure, fretting so much over a “correct” way to hide his exposed scalp, but his concern was more than vanity. And the seemingly easy solution of simply wearing a hat all the time presented a new challenge.

A dapper Southern gentleman, that Southern style presented a dilemma for him, since it was a faux pas of significant note for a man to wear a hat indoors. He felt strongly about this; a judge, on any number of occasions he had stopped legal proceedings to bark at some unsuspecting male to “approach the bench,” at which time Daddy explained the perils of wearing a hat indoors in his courtroom. (The offending headgear was either removed from the head of its owner or the owner left the courtroom.)

So when Dad asked me about wearing a beret, I answered that frankly, considering the circumstances, I felt like he could make his own damn rules. It was a simple answer, but inside I was staggered. He put on such a brave front – “all I need is a fighting chance” – but that day I saw a man different from the father I knew.

That man could bring over-exuberant behavior to a screeching halt with a single no-nonsense glance. That man never backed down from any critic; he successfully weathered a vicious professional crucifixion. But this man felt powerless to cope with an ultimately inconsequential aspect of his illness. This man, unlike the young lawyer who defiantly wore a black armband to protest the death penalty, was worried that someone might not approve if he wore a beret to cover his chemotherapy-scourged head!

I understand that when life has become devastatingly overwhelming, we sometimes focus on a smaller, more manageable issue as a coping mechanism. But still…if his vulnerability made me reel, what must it have been doing to him?

I leaned down, hugged him, mussed his hair and gave him a kiss. Close to his ear, I told him softly that everything would be all right. We stayed where we were for a while, my fingers absently twining through his hair as I looked out the window at the pines standing straight and strong and he stared down the long, empty hospital corridor.

As it turned out, Daddy was one of those people whose hair does not fall out after chemo. His hair remained planted firmly in his head, just the way he liked it. His doctor said something about the side effects of chemo not being as bad as they’d once been. Maybe so.

But maybe not. The human will can pack a punch. I can see my dad’s will being enough to keep his hair in place.

I wish it had been enough to keep him alive.

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