The boys’ hair is growing back. They both have nice coverings of dark fuzz and a few of their friends are almost back to their regular pre-shave haircuts. By now, everyone should have moved safely beyond the stage of questioning looks and sympathetic glances.
I imagine that for some of the shavees from our event, especially those with blond hair and nearly invisible eyebrows and eyelashes, the experience of being bald, at least in that first week or so, was quite similar to the experience of a real cancer patient. My kids both have dark enough hair (and eyelashes to die for) that they don’t warrant anything beyond a quick double-take. But for some, I’m certain they got quite a bit more than that as they wound their way through the grocery store with mom.
It must have been an interesting experience for the mothers of those kids too — to be on the receiving end of those looks. I know a thing or two about that. It’s not necessarily offensive; I mean, people are naturally curious and often mean well when they cast those big sad eyes on a sick child and his mother. But I spent months dodging sympathetic glances, back in the spring of 2010. Most of these took place at the hospital, because that’s where we spent most of our time during those months and because that’s where it was most obvious why my child was bald. My reaction to people’s stares was dramatically different depending on whether Austin was awake or asleep.
When he was awake, which usually meant he was tearing through the hospital hallways, skipping over tiles on the floor or climbing the low wall in the cafeteria like a balance beam, he did not look sick. Well, he looked sick, but he did not seem sick. In those moments, I always felt a strange pride when people stared in wonder and confusion at this obviously cancer-stricken child who was nonetheless cartwheeling his way through University Hospitals. I would shrug and smile, as they gave me these looks that turned from sadness to bewilderment to pure delight.
But when he was sleeping, which he often was, slouched over in the stroller as I pushed him from one ridiculously long appointment to another, I got completely different looks. These were quieter looks that people tried to hide from me, sideways glances and quick nudges of the person they were walking next to. “Look,” they seemed to be whispering to their companions. “Look at that kid.” My reaction then was to stare straight ahead, shoulders high, chin jutted forward. “We’re fine,” I was silently announcing back (even when we weren’t). “Don’t feel sorry for me.”
But look at us now. No sympathetic glances for this kid.