my eyelashes had the last laugh

“No eyebrows. No eyelashes. When it rains the water will run straight down into my eyes.” -Catherine Lorde

Sometime in 2010, three years and a bit pre-diagnosis, I attended a research group meeting. Someone was presenting their work on breast cancer narratives and the insane public need to tell stories with language that is happy-happy, that makes use of totally offensive metaphors like battle, fight, win, and lose. She provided us with one chapter of Catherine Lorde’s “The Summer of Her Baldness,” which we were supposed to read and respond to and with in relation to her own writing. One sentence from this chapter she provided stands out to me, and stuck with me:

“No eyebrows. No eyelashes. When it rains the water will run straight down into my eyes.” -Catherine Lorde

These words rushed back to me upon diagnosis, three years after reading the piece. No eyebrows, she wrote. Rain in her eyes, she wrote. I felt those words deeply before I was diagnosed, though maybe some part of me already knew, for surely the cancer was already growing. Maybe those words resonated because at a cellular level, as I sat there and thought about how I knew nothing about cancer, I already knew at a cellular level, an embodied level, that I would soon relate to those words just like Catherine did. I already had cancer, I just didn’t know it yet.

I live in Vancouver, where it rains so much sometimes the pavement doesn’t dry for days on end. What would it feel like to have the rain fall into my eyes? Despite being surrounded by cancer researchers of the critical, qualitative, queer, feminist, cultural studies type, I really had read very little scholarship on and about cancer, and so Lorde’s piece stuck with me. What, I wondered, would that feel like? Raindrops falling right into the eyes, pooling right in the irises. What an embodied way to think about how a moment with cancer would be so radically, completely, totally different from my own life. Of course, at that point I probably had no idea just how radically different being with cancer would be, even though I was certainly already living in concert with cancer. I was living in concert with cancer already, but I couldn’t hear the music. I didn’t even know there was music playing. I wouldn’t have known how to even recognize the music.

For months and months of chemo, I waited. I bragged. I was the one who’s eyelashes did not fall off. I re-read Lorde’s book, and I knew, then, that she knew something about cancer that I did not, for her eye lashes fell off. I read my cancer buddy K’s blog about looking like cancer and I knew that she, too, knew something I did not. K and Lorde knew something about being eyelash-less in the world. My eyelashes were sticking around, though. Chemo 5, chemo 6, chemo 7…. I still coated my lashes, each morning, with dark brown mascara. I did not look like cancer, and the rain did not run into my eyes. There was a way in which having lashes allowed me to forget, to believe this couldn’t be true, to roll my eyes and wonder if they’d actually mixed up my diagnosis with someone elses’ diagnosis? I had lashes. I didn’t look like cancer. It couldn’t actually be.

My lashes started clumping together, I noticed. Thinning. Brows, too. Not quite as thick, my lashes, as they were last week. I wore fake lashes one day. But I didn’t really need them. They took me 45 minutes to glue on and I sweated one off at yoga. And then there was chemo 8. I bragged too much. My eye lashes fell. Big, wide spots on my upper lid, no lashes. Seven lashes on the left, fifteen on the right. I counted.

The rain fell in my eyes. The dust blew in my eyes. The air settled right on top of my eyeballs.

I knew what K and Lorde knew. I knew I looked like cancer.

I tried pasting lashes to my lid. I did for a couple of days. They look garish.

I tried lining my lid with a pencil. It looks like a lashless lid lined with pencil.

I gave up. I am lash-less. My eyes hurt from the elements. Literally. You can’t even see the twenty-two lashes that remain, because, as I have explained to many, I have clear eyelashes, eyelashes so light you can barely see them anyway. My brows, too, are quite thin. They look horribly over-tweezed. I didn’t count the number of brow hairs left, but I bet it’s under thirty. And so I wonder, now do I look like cancer? I squint all the time because my eyes hurt from the elements. It sounds like I live in the wild west when I say my eyes hurt from the elements, but there is just no other way to describe it. The air is just too close to my eyes, and I feel like the glorious smell coming from the blossoming trees in the city is actually in my eyes. Alas, the elements.

“No eyebrows. No eyelashes. When it rains the water will run straight down into my eyes.” -Catherine Lorde

The line perfectly and poetically gets at how cancer warps how we touch the world. It hints at how our bodies change, and in that change, how we live with and interact with the world of course also changes. And yet, my lashes have never been visible, not even before cancer. My eyebrows have always been faint. They were always the color clear. But now they are naught. They are totally gone. How I touch the world is warped with cancer, and if you look, you can tell. I can stare in the mirror for hours, wondering where they went, the row of lashes I used to own. And I look like cancer.

Looking like cancer, feeling like cancer, is odd, it’s an embodiment of something I never thought I was, someone I never wanted to be, a skin I can’t quite climb inside of but I can’t shed either. It’s like I’m halfway in between, stuck, both, inside and outside. Looking out from my body is so different without eye lashes. It’s so profoundly odd. It’s so unknowable, it’s so impossible to describe, without feeling what it feels like to have your eyeballs not protected from the air and wind and rain. My eyeballs are too close to people, too. Too close to their words and assaulted by their breath and too close to everything. There is a way in which eye lashes provide protection and cover, even though they are just thin little hairs no longer than an inch.

And it’s so odd what stays with us. The times I’ve thought of Lorde’s line are all cancer-times. Whenever it came up as someone’s research, there were those words, in the back of my mind and the image of a raindrop falling into an unprotected eye informed me, always. Cancer came up in other peoples’ research all the time. My academic supervisor, who also had breast cancer, writes about the cultural politics of breast cancer, and so do some of her other students. I wonder though, how can they? How can one write cancer without having felt what it feels like to peer out at the world from eyelash-less eyes? It’s impossible to be informed without having ridden up the elevator to the chemo floor, with your eye lashes or without them, knowing that when you step out of the elevator and sit down in one of the chemo chairs they will pump you full of deadly poison? It is am embodied knowing.

An embodied knowing I wish I could shed, but it is too deep inside me. And my eye lashes fell out. I guess it wasn’t the eye lashes that had the last laugh. It was the last chemo that had the last laugh.

Of this chapter.

I want to keep laughing forever.

 

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