My Wobbly Bicycle, 75

Posted by on Jul 2, 2014 | 17 comments

My Wobbly Bicycle, 75

I had no idea that an all-clear signal from my oncologist would rattle my innards so profoundly. It doesn’t mean much—he said so. But for me, it set off a series of adjustments as if I had just crawled out from under the rubble of a bombed-out building. I’d been down there a long time in the dark—dirt, sand, creaking timbers—injured, starving and thirsty. I’d nearly died. Now what? Can I ever go back to who I was? Who I thought I was? What now?

No joke. That big a shift. Take the metaphor of my hair. Take my hair. It’s too curly for me. Well, of course I’m grateful to have it. It sprang back from the brutal treatment with great vivacity, all thick and, well, curly. However, I always wanted sleek hair. It was fairly straight, with some wavy body, before the chemo. When I was young, my grandmother used to periodically coerce me into marching up the block to her old ladies’ beauty salon to have them give me a permanent. I had had curly hair as a toddler; I think she was looking for Shirley Temple redux. But I’d come home and stand in front of the mirror, crying, wetting it little old ladyand pulling on it to straighten it. Little old lady hair.

And of course now it’s gray. It’s a lovely gray with a lot of steely dark in it. But it felt so NOT ME. So I had my beautician add more of the steely dark. Then it looked just all gray. Worse than before. Ah, I need brown, to add warmth to my complexion! So I had it colored light brown. No, that looked boringly dull. So then I said make it dark, the way it used to be. We picked a shade that was a tiny bit lighter than the one I’d used before I lost my hair.

And that was the biggest surprise to me. I hated it. It seemed totally unnatural. It was so awful that I texted my beautician and said, “I HATE my hair! Help!” She texted back to say “I’ll fix it.” So bless her dear heart, free of charge, she put in a bunch of light streaks that eased my pain color

And it’s slowly fading, of course. I’ve decided to gradually let it get back to its natural gray.

All this is not about hair, natch. It’s about how I see myself. The transition from my wig, which amazingly looked like my old hair, to curly gray hair was too much for me. But gradually I’m seeing who this is, now, in the mirror. It’s going to take me some time.

And then who is the person who has to have long naps, Wally stretched across her stomach? Who’s losing her lithe young body? Who can’t get her stomach flat no matter how smart she eats?

Some days I’m just plain depressed. Honestly, it feels like PTSD. I was brave. Now what got pushed aside by the bravery wants to be seen.

Don’t misunderstand me. Some days I’m fine.

wally nappingAnd then the writing. I don’t know. I write poems and some of them are good. I write prose and some of it is good. But the fire, where’s the fire? Some of it came from the need to succeed. Sure. Some from my previous publish-or-perish life. Sure. Some. Someone asked me recently why I’m not content to rest on my laurels. “That’s not the way it works,” I said.

I’m not happy when I’m not writing—I’m miserable, actually—but for the past couple of years I’ve had to force myself to get things ready to send out. I have a pile of unsent poems. I’m a bit floundering. I can’t figure out how to relate to my life. I’m a bloodhound who hasn’t picked up the scent.

You could say I’m waiting to pick it up, to figure this out. Or, you could say that all that previous “figuring out” was not the point. There’s nothing to figure out. I lean toward the latter. What comes next will come next.



  1. Thank you for this wonderful post. I am entering my fifth year AC (after cancer), and all of this hits achingly home for me. And it is a kind of PTSD – you’ve had a life-threatening, life-altering experience. You don’t just “get over” peering into the abyss. And that scary “what do I do now?” feeling is very common after treatment ends. For women, add in the body stuff, too – it’s as if cancer takes all the pieces of your identity, smashes them around for a while, then leaves you to pick them up and put them back together in some kind of order that makes sense. There’s a difference between curing and healing. In a way, healing is harder because you’re pretty much on your own. You don’t have a great team of dedicated medicos to shepherd you through: you have to feel your way. Also, it takes a while – maybe the rest of our lives. The good news is, it gets better, easier. You are still you – a different, annealed you – but still you. (PS. I still touch my hair to make sure it’s still there.)

    • This is a beautiful and articulate comment. Thank you.

  2. Be of good cheer — most of he curl goes away in time. Honest.

    • This is my hope. Can’t tell it NOW, especially on a humid day. It’s crazy curly.

  3. Your body was attacked agressively. It will take time to heal. Stand in front of a mirror and accept yourself. Look closely, find one thing today that you like about your reflection and take joy in that; dress carefully and walk out the door with confidence others will find you very attractive too.

    Hair is very important. Keep playing around until you find the right look for yourself. Swim in the lake whenever you can, you will ease your mind and your body will develope contours you love.

    • All good advice. Thanks, Millie. Swimming, however, is still out. Too cold!

      • Interesting to me that I have had an opposite response to the hair experience. I always really liked my curls and wouldn’t have dreamed of not coloring my hair, not ever. Now it is, of course, gray/black but a vibrant gray/black. It goes well with my head looking like I’m sporting a buzz cut. All together it creates what I’m embracing as my Sinead O’Connor look and I’m liking this maybe even more than I did the old curls. I think I will keep all of it, color and length, until if and when my internal winds shift.

        • It looks good both ways, Nancie. I’m liking your new look.

  4. It’s a funny world we live in–half the time it wants us to stay mired and be people who can be pitied and then declared brave/noble/examples-to-us-all and half the time it wants us to get over traumas pretty much immediately so it can avoid its own fears of pain or dying. Or both, all the time. More and more it seems to me that the serious stuff, the hyper-real stuff is seldom 50/50. Much more often–at least it feels to me this way–its 100/100. Paradox, schmaradox.

    Hair is terribly, terribly important. Look at the size of the hair-care industry–the Marxist take. Or look at how many religions have laws around it–the probably more important anthropological take. Also, it’s a thing you can control, sort of, sometimes. And yours has been so great for so long.

    Your body didn’t quit on you. I, for one, am inclined to feel great affection to it for that.

    • 100-100. This seems exactly right. You are as always so smart about all this, Devon. I join you in my affection for my body that hasn’t quit on me. My hair, well, not so much at present.

  5. First, I am so happy at your clean report! I have not had to deal with serious health issues, but I do relate to “what now”? I have been retired from school counseling for six years, and although I write, draw, photograph, and meditate – all things I (mostly) enjoy, I ask myself, “Where’s the fire?” What to do with these (sort of) final, precious, slower days? No answers, just wanted to share my reflections.

  6. This is, of course, great and powerful stuff, I never expect otherwise from you, Fleda. My reaction to it is funny. On the one hand, disease-free and healthier than I likely deserve to be, still at 71 I tend to experience less of the fire in the belly to write anything than I did even fairly recently. Given the choice between an afternoon at the desk and one with any or all of my grandkids, for example, there’s no inward debate. Grandkids it is.

    This may all have more to do with our aging than with disease, though disease, as Dr. Johnson said of the gallows,”concentrates the mind wonderfully,” I’m sure.

    It seems so to have concentrated yours –fire in the belly or not– that I know at first hand you are writing poems now that are among the best you have ever managed.

    So it is, as I say, an odd thing: I “get” the occasional indifference to the whole effort– and marvel at the results when you overcome that indifference.

    Maybe we ought to write another book together, not GROWING OLD IN POETRY but HAVING GROWN OLD IN POETRY. I’m only half kidding, you know.



    • I would write this book, just to write it with you, my beloved friend. I can think of an essay, maybe. Can you see a book? As for the fire, I think of some of the best poems by old poets. That grace and slowness, how I love it, and how poetry needs it. So, let’s hope we can keep cranking ourselves up for a while.

  7. Dear Curly, I assume that’s how you are planning to sign your new
    book. What fun, getting to remake yourself. Who gets to do that.
    I’d skip the non-flat, dark, steely, stripped stuff though. What you really need to do now is prepare a new set of photographs that
    you can send out to people, especially to those who are going to
    introduce you at various events, so they can spot you, when you enter the room – always nice to introduce the right person. My advice is just to let the hair fall where it may, you’ll look good
    in any costume. Now an added benefit – you’ll be a lady of mystery.


    • Ah, I will change my photo on my site WHEN my hair is gray again. Right now it looks, well, in transition. But when I come to Delaware by October, it should be grayer. And I’ll change my profile photo. I look the same, really. I think. After a minute or two of adjustment, you’ll think I’m the same ole person.

  8. Fleda
    Please consider paying us a visit in lower slower, when you visit Delaware this October.

    • This is definitely my plan, Joe!

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