A Beautiful Gift

presents

You are altogether beautiful, my love, there is no flaw in you. Song of Soloman 4:7

I had to make a quick run to the store to grab a few things.  As I opened the tops of the shampoo bottles searching for my favorite scent, I couldn’t help but notice a young couple coming down the main aisle.  Everyone noticed them.  Well, they noticed HER.  She looked like she walked right out of the magazines that were on the rack nearby. She was in her early 20’s with long, wavy, blond hair and her eyes, a crystal blue, seemed to be twice the size they should have been. I noticed that everyone within view had turned their heads.  She was walking with a handsome young man who looked very proud to be walking next to her.

There was only one register open and there was a long line. That young couple approached the check out just as another cashier announced she would take the “next in line”.  An older woman in front of me headed that direction but just as she approached, the young girl jumped in front of her. As they checked out, the cashier was slow and the young girl became rude and impatient.  I saw that it was starting to rain when I got to the exit doors. The young girl walked out and stopped. She demanded that her boyfriend get the car and pick her up. He pointed to the car that was parked close by and told her it wasn’t far.  She sucked in her breath, crossed her arms, and scolded him for not obeying her command.  The young man went to get the car.

Right there in front of me was an example of all those sayings – “beauty is only skin deep”, “it’s what is on the inside that counts”, “beauty is as beauty does”.  This girl had a pretty face but she didn’t look so pretty once she showed her true self.  She was a walking example of how what is on the outside does not reflect what is on the inside. Although it was a little different, I had a similar experience when I had to go through chemotherapy. I was scared about the treatment, feeling sick, and all the other things that I was going to face as a cancer patient — but one thing terrified me more than it should have.  I dreaded losing my hair.  I knew there were more important things to worry about and that it was a superficial thing that shouldn’t have caused so much anxiety – but it did.

I asked my doctor how long until I would lose my hair. He told me that when I came back for my second chemo treatment in 3 weeks, my hair would be gone. My brother’s wedding and family portraits were scheduled within those next two weeks.I prayed every night that my hair would not fall out before those two events. My prayers were answered as I got to attend my brother’s wedding with all of my hair.  The next day as I got ready for our family portraits, I jumped in the shower and washed my hair. When I grabbed the conditioner, my palm was full of hair.  There was so much hair.  As I rinsed the conditioner, more hair filled my hands. I looked in the mirror, afraid of finding bald spots. My hair was limp and lifeless but most of it was still attached to my head. I wanted to get through our family portrait session. I wanted my children to have a picture of all of us together and a picture of me … before.

We got through the photo session just fine.  I remember sitting at the drive-thru ATM the next day.  I reached in to put my card in the machine.  As I pulled my arm back into the car, there was a substantial chunk of hair on my arm. I was shedding as the day went on. Later, I made an appointment at the wig salon to have my head shaved. I couldn’t do it myself. It was traumatic and the reality of my situation was sinking in – I was barely adjusted to the fact that I was a cancer patient.  Now, I was going to look like one.

The hair dresser asked if I wanted to face the mirror or turn away from it.  I chose to face the mirror but I closed my eyes. I heard those clippers turn on, that buzzing was like the sound of an oncoming train.  I felt those clippers on my scalp,the hair grazing my face and shoulders as it fell to the ground. I felt the breeze on my newly shaven head and a shiver went down my spine. I was so cold.  I felt like a part of me died in that heap of hair on the salon floor.  When she was done, she put the tight cap over my head and positioned my wig.  She showed me how to push in the clips to hold it in place.  Once that wig was securely on my head, I allowed myself to look in the mirror.

The wig looked okay, almost real.  I felt like I was wearing a Halloween costume but I thought, “This is going to be me for a while. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe I can do this”.  I walked up the stairs with all the confidence I could muster and opened the door into the main part of the salon. I saw women getting their hair cut, colored, and highlighted.  My heart ached as I walked out and got into the car. Then, I felt that confidence leave me as the tears started falling from my eyes. I didn’t cry. I didn’t sob.  I just couldn’t stop the tears from falling silently as I drove home.

It was hard at first.  As treatment continued, my eyebrows and my eyelashes were barely hanging on. My skin was getting more pale as the circles under my eyes were getting darker from fatigue. One night I burst into tears as I looked at my reflection. I didn’t recognize myself. Then, I saw my hair dryer, curling iron, and straightener in the basket on the counter and next to it, all of my hair products.  It made me sad to look at them. I used all the energy I had that night to put them away… far, far away …  into the back of the cabinet under the sink.  If I couldn’t use them, I didn’t want to look at them anymore.

It got easier as time went on.  I even appreciated that I could get ready so quickly in the morning, that I didn’t have to spend time styling my hair because my wig looked perfect without doing a thing. I stopped wearing makeup.  I didn’t have the energy to apply it.  Also, my skin was lighter and the colors looked harsh. I didn’t have many eyelashes so eye make up and mascara only made that more noticeable. My old morning  beauty routine ceased.  I got up, showered, put on my wig and that was it.  In and out in about 5 minutes. At that time, I spent my days in yoga pants and sweatshirts.  My skin was dry and itchy.  My body ached.  Only loose, comfortable clothing was going to work.I had a closet full of beautiful clothes but I had no interest in wearing them.

One night, my husband and I were going to an event. I had to get myself together.  I couldn’t wear yoga pants and my knit cap. I picked an outfit that I could stand to wear for a few hours. I put some makeup on and adjusted my wig and then I caught my reflection in the mirror.  I decided to try a little eye makeup.  I even used some mascara, taking care to coat every eye lash that I had left, adding a little more to the eye that was more sparse. I slathered on some lip balm and even wore lipstick.  Then, I stepped back and looked, really looked, in the mirror. Looking back at me was a glimpse of that girl that I lost a few months ago. I saw a piece of her I hadn’t seen in a while. My past and my present merged. I realized it had only been the outside that changed.  My inside was still very much the same.  In that moment, I felt a little more hope than I had felt in a while.

It wasn’t hope that I would survive. It wasn’t hope that I would beat my cancer. I already had that hope in my heart through my faith in God. This night, I had hope that I would not only live through this nightmare, I would find that girl again.  I may be forever changed, but I would be a better version of the old me.  It didn’t have anything to do with hair or make up. I had learned through my experience that those things didn’t matter. I knew what it was like to feel like me … but not to look like me.  I knew what it was like to have a disconnect between who I was on the inside and who I was on the outside. I knew what it was like to be stripped of all the decoration – the hair, the make up, the clothes – and still learn to be okay with me, no matter what was on the outside.  I wasn’t going to allow myself to be sad anymore. Whether I was wearing my purple and white knit cap from the cancer center, my wig, or my awkwardly short “growing in” hair … whether I was wearing makeup or just lip balm on my cracked chemo lips…whether I was wearing my yoga pants and sweatshirts or my professional clothes — I was still me.  I was still in there.  The outer layer didn’t change the inner layer.

It seemed so simple but until that moment, I didn’t get it, really get it. Through cancer, I gained more confidence by being stripped of it. By losing my hair and losing my identity, I actually found it. I loved that my hair had grown back and I loved using make up but I know that as a stage 4 patient, there will come a day when I lose my hair again.  It was fun to get dressed up once in a while, to do my hair, to put on my makeup…but I’m still me no matter what is on the outside.

I feel for those people who put more emphasis on fixing up their outside than on working on their inside. You could be the most beautiful person in the world but that doesn’t mean you had a beautiful soul. When hair and makeup are more important than your heart, you get it all mixed up. I used hair and make up to cover up my cancer and to make me feel like myself again. In some ways, it was a blessing. Hair and make up was a tool to gain confidence but it could also cover up who you really are. No matter how you dress up the outside, your true self tends to leak out whether you want it to or not. I learned that people see your outer beauty but they feel your inner beauty. People admire good looks for a few moments but appreciate a good heart for a lifetime.

I will remember that lesson for the rest of my life. Our appearance is like the wrapping paper on a gift. It can be colorful and sparkly and adorned with beautiful bows and ribbons or it can be a simple box wrapped in brown shipping paper. No matter how pretty or plain the wrapping, it is what is inside the box that matters.  If you were a present for your friends, family, and those who meet you; what kind of gift would they find after they tore off your wrapping?

Do not let your adornment be merely outward – arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel – Rather let it be the hidden person of the heart with the incorruptible beauty of a gentler, quiet spirit which is very precious in the sight of God.  

I Peter 3:3-4

 

Author: Jennifer Lilley Collins

I'm a Mom, wife, daughter, and friend navigating life with metastatic breast cancer while finding joy in the everyday and spreading hope, love, and inspiration along the way.

One thought on “A Beautiful Gift”

  1. Through tears and remembering the awfulness of it all, I remember when I stopped wearing makeup and lost my hair. I have always been a vain person all my life … but now I like me, actually love me is more like it! I loved the article Jen. Amazing journalism!
    Thank you for always putting into words what the rest of us are trying to say. 🤗.

    Like

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