I recently drove to Vermont with my friend, Chris, for a weekend visit to see my older sister, Trish. As soon as I saw Chris walking toward my car I burst out laughing. She had with her a simple knapsack which held a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt and a few other necessities. She asked me why I was laughing. I got out to show her my huge suitcase which took up the entire trunk of my car. She laughed and said, "Typical!" Chris says I'm high maintenance on the outside, simple on the inside. I can live with that.
When she asked me what my sister was like the best response I could come up with was, "Well, she is the total opposite of me." Trish is jeans and t shirts, Burt's Bees lip balm and wash and go hair. She can pull it off because she is just one of those naturally pretty women. If she wasn't so nice I would hate her! With three young girls to chase after and a hotel to run, she doesn't have time for anything frivolous. I, on the other hand, must have at least 3 full outfit options on any given day, will wear exquisitely painful shoes if they are cute and can rock enough diamonds to rival a mid level rapper. Her daughter, Emily, is just like me; she loves anything that sparkles. When Emily was 5 she walked into my closet and asked if she could have my shoes. "No way", I said. "I wear them, plus they're too big for you!" "Well, can I have them when you die?", she asked. Laughing, I said "Of course you can!" Considering I have about 200 pairs of shoes, this is quite an inheritance. I did tell her, though, that she couldn't have my black patent leather Christian Louboutin heels; they're my favorite and I'm taking them with me! For the past 4 years Emily has reminded me of that conversation and we would laugh. Except for this last visit. It didn't seem funny anymore once I truly faced my own mortality.
When, in 2011, I was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer I would post updates on Facebook about my treatments, the side effects, etc. My sister's question before every treatment was, "So what are you wearing?" She knew I would spend hours going through my closets to pick the perfect outfit for that day and wanted to see the fruits of my labor. I began taking pictures of the fully assembled outfits. I labeled the photo album Chemo Fabulous! Soon enough all of my Facebook friends would look for the new photos and comment on them. Posting those pics took the angst out of the day, calmed my nerves and gave me something to look forward to on a day I grew to dread. I needed to feel as normal as possible and losing myself in racks of clothing served as the ideal distraction from what was going on.
My routine is this; the night before treatment I tear through my closets. I have three closets upstairs and one downstairs and they are all filled to capacity. My bed is then covered in options; pants are paired with a few different tops, dresses may have a scarf or sweater added. Once the basics are nailed down, then I go for the shoes. Oh how I love shoes!!! They bring me an obscene amount of joy. I have a walk in shoe closet that makes me smile each time I open the doors. Ok, shoes...done! Now on to the accessories; necklace, rings, bag. Is it a lot of work? Maybe. But it's a labor of love. I take my clothes seriously and myself less so. As soon as I pull it all together the next test is, do I hear The Commodores song 'Brick House' when I look in the mirror. If the answer is no, then it's back to step 1. If I do, then I sashay my way out the door and head to treatment. Isn't this how everyone gets ready in the morning?
But all of my hard work pays off as soon as I walk into Sloan and see my nurses. I love how they make a fuss over me; commenting on my shoes, my accessories or my newly grown hair. I know some people may think it's silly or superficial and maybe they're right. Often I have looked around the waiting area and have seen people not only in sweat pants and t shirts but also in wheelchairs and oxygen masks. I'm sure fashion is the last thing on their mind. Sometimes they will look at me and smile. Once a woman in a wheelchair asked me who I was with. When I told her I was the patient, she held my hand and told me that gave her hope. She didn't need to explain any further for I understood completely. She was thin and frail looking; cancer had robbed her of her strength. Maybe she, too, was once a fierce dresser. I haven't seen her in a while but think of her often when I get ready for treatment.
My husband is baffled by my clothing obsession. I happened to marry someone who couldn't care less about clothing or shoes or anything with the slightest air of superficiality. Our son, Sean, is just like him. At 17, he is well past the age of being able to dress him. He wears jeans with ratty old t shirts and beat up Converse sneakers. When it gets cold, he puts on his favorite bleached stained sweatshirt. He is truly indifferent to trends of any kind. If ever he is in the room when I'm getting ready for my day, I feel like I'm the subject of an anthropology thesis. "Why do you wear makeup?", he'll inquire. "If the shoes hurt why do you wear them?", asks the silly boy. If he didn't look just like me, I would swear he wasn't mine. I blame his father.
Today Sean said, "Mom, I don't know any other woman who would get so dressed up for chemo. Why do you do it?" I told him that if I didn't then cancer won. See, I'm not a sweatpants and sneakers kind of girl; never have been and I'm not going to start now. Cancer took parts of my body but it will never take the essence of who I am. I believe in the power of red lipstick and manicures and a great shoe. Getting dressed up may not heal my body, but it heals my soul. One day soon I'm going to step off of the Sloan-Kettering runway but I won't stop being fabulous. I just won't be chemo fabulous anymore...and that's ok with me.