It was early in the evening on a day that had been a little off-kilter when I saw her coming down the sidewalk of downtown Lexington, Kentucky.
It was an overnight step on my way to Virginia for the little May book tour. I’d always wanted to explore the city, so I booked a pricey room at an old inn since I was indulging myself before an unwanted surgery that I would have at the end of the tour.
On the way down through Southern Indiana on SR 37, a two lane road that wound through fields of golden ragwort and miniature towns, I begin to fret over my haircut. Obsess really. A fairly new cut for me. It’s asymmetrical and loosely based on the haircut of Claire Underwood, a ruthless strategist on the Netflix series House of Cards. I’d tried wearing my hair long, up in buns and French twists, but it’s too thin and the style made me look like an old lady (which, of course, I am). I wanted something more modern, more radical. Something that rocked. And this haircut did. I even had blue streaks in it. But I blew the follow up trim (it can be hard to replicate the original cut, easy to lose that je ne sais quoi of the new cut). I’d been late to the appointment. So my stylist was rushed. She asked me how long in the back. I told her to just do whatever.
I should have said short. It was frumpy and too long in the back. I wanted to look as good as an old lady could for the book tour.
So when I got to Lexington, I Google Mapped for the hair salon closest to the inn and lucked into a stylist in between appointments to get the back cut short, short, short! Don’t touch the sides or front, don’t use hair thinning shears or razors; I want a good scissor cut. I showed her photos of Claire Underwood’s hair cut pulled up online on my phone. And I got want I wanted.
But the rest of the day I couldn’t quite get my way. My room at the inn felt very tired, the furniture not antique but just cheap, beat, old stuff, the carpet looked like it was from the 90s, and the bedspread was one of those awful things that you don’t even what to touch but have to take it off and put it in the corner. The inn had a restaurant but it seemed pretentious yet uncomfortable, the fatty food expensive.
I wandered the few blocks to downtown Lexington. I stopped at a brew pub, sat in a black padded swivel chair at a long bar facing a brick wall with oversized posters. The music was loud. Several minutes went by without a bartender even glancing my way, despite my hip haircut with the short short back. So I left. I walked and walked and walked, harassed over and over by the same drunk panhandler. Nothing looked good. I ended up at another little brew pub close the inn. Had a local beer, some bar food, and an odd, depressing conversation with man who sold furnishings to universities about his iron sculpture business that failed even though celebrities had purchased his work.
Before turning in for the evening the next day's drive to Lexington, Virginia, I began to think about my breakfast. I’m picky about breakfast. I don’t need a lot, but I want a healthy one. Yogurt with fresh fruit is nice. The inn’s restaurant offered a yogurt on their breakfast menu for 10 dollars. Nope. That won’t do. So I walked a few blocks to a little store on Short Street called Shorty’s and bought a little container of semi-fake, fruity yogurt, a banana, and a bag of local granola.
And this is when I saw her. On the way back to the inn.
Walking toward me. She had this dramatic, kick-ass asymmetrical haircut and was wearing a white t-shirt printed with a large black “United.” She looked at me as the distance between us shortened and smiled nervously. I was focused on her hair cut and how cool she looked. She had a rebellious but not callous vibe; somewhere in her 20s I guessed. I smiled back. When we grew even on the sidewalk, she stopped to speak to me.
That’s when I saw that the shaved side of her head wasn’t a cool, rebel cut. It had a heartbreaking arc of metal surgical staples that must have spanned four inches.
She asked me if I could help her.
She explained that she’d just had brain surgery. Well, that sure was obvious. I recognized those staples from Jim’s brain surgery, the one he had when his lung cancer spread there, just a few months before he died.
She showed me a catheter port on the taped to back of her hand and told me she was doing cycles of both chemo and radiation. She was so tired, and it was hard to think clearly. She was forgetting stuff. And for some reason her credit card didn’t work at the gas station, and she was out of gas. So she had left her car at the station and started walking to see if she could beg some cash for gas. There weren’t many people on the sidewalk and so far, all that had happened was that some guy had cussed her out.
This was no drunk panhandler.
She looked completely fatigued, so so weary. I asked her to sit down on some nearby steps with me. She’d had seizures at work, that’s how they’d discovered the cancer. And she was trying to keep her job, but it was hard. They’d taken out a chuck of her brain about the size of fist. And there was still more cancer in her brain that was harder remove. If the chemo and radiation didn’t work, then they would do a second operation.
The size of a fist. That’s what my oncology surgeon had told me. I had abnormal cells in my left breast that were the size of a fist. Is this taught in medical school? How to describe the size of tumors. Big as a thumb. As a fist. What would be bigger? A foot?
I almost never carry much cash. But because I was traveling, I had some. I pulled out my wallet and handed her a twenty. She looked down, paused, and then said. “It’ll take 35 to fill up the tank. Maybe by the time I need gas again I’ll have figured out what’s wrong with my credit card.”
I gave her another twenty.
And I told her about my breast fist. Beyond my closest friends and family, she was the first person I’d told. And about Jim’s cancer. And we talked for quite a while about how things just come from nowhere.
She wanted to pay me back, send me a check. I told her no. Then she asked if she could give it my church. I told her to just help someone else when they need it. She stood to walk back in the direction she had come. “Live each day as it comes,” she said me before she left. “I’m keeping you in my prayers.”
I can’t get her out of my mind. Every time I think about my hair cut now, I see her instead of the merciless Claire Underwood. And I feel lucky.
My fist, once removed, turned out to only have a section of bad cells in the size of a tiny fingernail, as described by my surgeon as she held out her small Asian pinkie finger. Low-risk pre-cancer. I don’t need radiation. No chemo. Even though today my chest looks like a gruesome patchwork quilt, it will heal.
But I bet this young woman won’t be as lucky.