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WRITTEN BY MOLLY MARTIN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BETTY UDESEN
Already it's been a difficult month. My father has moved into a nursing home after several years of failing health. My mother's still recovering from the strain of caring for him. The whole family is coping with visiting him there.
It's December 1990. Three days after Christmas, I come into work here at Pacific magazine. I'd asked for the previous day off "for some tests."
I run into a co-worker. She asks how the tests went.
"Not so well," I say. "It's cancer."
I was 34. Playing in two basketball leagues, hitting a few tennis balls, running, doing some weights, feeling good.
And not surprised to learn I had cancer.
Maybe that's not so unusual. Maybe nowadays everyone figures they'll eventually get cancer.
Or maybe, deep down, I suspected something was wrong.
July 1990. It's a few months before the abnormal mammogram. We're working on the fall fashion issue of Pacific magazine. I know less about fashion than about neural networking. Friends tease me about the range of colors I wear, all the way from blue to gray.
But I have hair. Down to my knees. So, at my editors' request, I write about having long hair.
The headline (which I don't write): "Signature Hair."
The subhead (which I do): "The trick is to not get too attached to it."
The piece ends with a story about Barbara, a woman I've just met at a Buddhist retreat in Massachusetts. She has no hair. Assorted colorful hats. Large, dangling earrings. She almost flaunts her smooth head. Quite avant-garde, I think.
Until I hear why she has no hair.
Then, back at the newspaper, there's the day my hair catches in the hinges of a bathroom stall door. It's not the first time. It's usually catching in something or other. Seat belt, door knob, belt buckle.
It's also not the first time that, after my initial irritation, I think:
Don't be impatient. You won't have this frustration anymore after it all falls out.
Attachment. It can be very tricky. I'd been working on it for several years, while looking into some Buddhist teachings and meditational practices. Attachment and aversion. Nonduality. Equanimity. Compassion. Emptiness.
Attachment to hair, to ego, to appearance. Aversion to illness, suffering, death.
Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama leading that Massachusetts retreat, emphasized integrating the teachings into daily life. Around the clock, ideally. That was challenging enough, even when I was healthy.
But with cancer?
November 1990. I'm standing at the kitchen counter at home, chopping vegetables. Phone rings. I grab it, stretch the cord, and continue chopping.
It's Dr. Heilbrunn, the radiologist I haven't met. He's checked my mammograms. There are a few dots he thinks should be looked into. It could be just calcifications; could be something more. He'd classify them as Level 3, he says. Based on his track record, when something is Level 3, 16 percent of the time it is cancerous.
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