“I’d like to have some buttons made,” I tell the manager in this converted textile mill office. It’s a cluttered, busy place; papers, boxes and dust everywhere.
He observes me with a quizzical expression. The mill is not easy to find, hidden on the riverbank of this neglected town. They don’t get many walk-ins. Walk-ins with small orders.
“Here’s the mock-up.” I hand him the black and white graphic designed yesterday on my computer.
“CHEMO BITES,” he reads aloud. His gaze strays to the hat not hiding my baldness. Darts back to my eyes. “Ohkay,” he says, “How many?”
We decide on two-hundred and fifty. I can order more if I run out.
The day before I visited a friend who was diagnosed a month after me with the same cancer, same stage. My response to the diagnosis was to slow down. Cheryl sped up.
“Our color is teal,” Cheryl told me.
“Our color. Breast cancer is pink. Ovarian cancer is teal.”
Cheryl has been researching everything to do with ovarian cancer, which should not be a surprise to me. When I was diagnosed, she was my main source of information. Some people turn to the internet, I had Cheryl. She works for a large health insurance company. They have better medical information than most hospitals.
Cheryl placed a small, tasteful teal lapel pin in my hand, gold trimmed and ribbon shaped. “We need to get the word out. Ovarian cancer is deadlier than breast cancer and prostate cancer but there is little funding or research. I’ve ordered hundreds…”
I wasn’t listening. I was focused on the teal ribbon pin on my palm. It’s burning my flesh, I thought, but did not say.
Red ribbons for AIDS were introduced when I worked for an AIDS organization. Before they were sported on lapels from Fort Kent, Maine to Hollywood, they meant more than simply preventing HIV and funding research. A red ribbon meant you probably lost someone to AIDS. It meant you weren’t afraid of gay people. It meant you knew you were witnessing a preventable genocide caused by unrelieved homophobia.
Even then I didn’t wear one.
Disease-wear and disease-gear make me feel like I am living in a disease-state.
As ubiquitous fashion and life style statements, they don’t bring me hope. No yellow wristbands, no red dresses, no pink Kitchen Aid appliances. Especially no pink. Breast cancer has been Barbie-ized.
The buttons arrive in a small brown box. Can all two hundred and fifty fit in there? My eager fingers tear the tape, reach in and grab the shiny, black and white circles. CHEMO BITES. The buttons fall between my fingers like gold coins.
I distribute the buttons to friends. Friends distribute to their friends. I supply a dish at the chemo center, next to the dish with the pink ribbons.
A friend phones to share a story. There has been a button sighting. A middle school boy with cancer wanted to go to school in a “Cancer Sucks” tee-shirt. His mom said no, “sucks” being a banned word on school attire. A friend of a friend of a friend gave the boy a Chemo Bites button. His mom let him wear that to school. Made him happy.
I keep buttons in my pocket and offer them to strangers who ask about them. I hadn’t anticipated their impact. My bald head is the illness equivalency of pregnancy – when a woman is obviously pregnant, is it appropriate to acknowledge the pregnancy or not? Does she want the focus on her belly? Is the belly community property? My head has been patted by strangers. “You look sexy bald,” one man told me after telling me about his sister’s cancer and asking if I had an extra button. The buttons provide an unstated invitation to acknowledge my illness and talk. About them, their loved ones, sometimes me.
At the end of April, when I am nearing my final treatment and I am tired, bloated, red in the face, and pimples have formed a constellation across my cheeks and head, the compliments stop coming. So do the intrusive pats. I keep passing out Chemo Bites buttons.
The mall is my venue of choice for distributing buttons. This is where I can walk as slowly as I need without worrying about ice or rain or access to a restroom. Like the rest of me, my feet have swollen to a new size and after months of walking the mall, it is time for a new pair of sneakers. In the shoe section of JC Penney, I spot the exact pair of New Balance cross-trainers I have been searching for – they are on sale! The display pair is actually my size. I take this as a sign that good things are coming my way. Yes, I still have one more treatment and the thought of it makes my throat burn and the nausea rise. Yes, I still have an open, seeping bandaged wound down my abdomen. Yes, I have gained thirty pounds. Yes, with my bald head and round face I look more like my father than my mother. Yes, yes, yes. I have reason to be miserable. But I am alive. And I have found my sneakers.
I sit my substantial self down on the bench, unlace the sneaker and begin to fit it on my foot. That’s when I see it and I’m not sure I believe what I am seeing. A pink ribbon, embroidered on the tongue. The sale shoe, my miracle shoe, is a breast cancer shoe.
I am on my feet, the shoe thrown to the floor. Hear a voice yelling.
“I DO NOT WANT CANCER ON MY SHOES! I DO NOT WANT IT ON MY CLOTHES, MY BODY, OR ME! I DON’T WANT TO BE REMINDED EVERY FUCKING MOMENT THAT I HAVE CANCER! I JUST WANT A GODDAMN SNEAKER!”
I realize the voice is mine. Doesn’t matter. The sneaker appears unmoved by my rant and I kick it. Tears fall into the lenses of my eyeglasses and because I have no nose hairs, nose drips are flowing over my lips and onto my coat. My rant continues.
“AND GODDAMN IT, MY COLOR IS TEAL!”
Startled by myself and spent, I slump back down on the bench, self conscious. I look toward the aisle’s end and find myself unsurprised by the stunned mother-daughter pair staring at me, concerned expressions on their matching faces. Of course they are there. They probably like pink. I wipe my nose on my sleeve, point to the sneaker. “My color is teal,” I explain helpfully. They offer limp smiles and disappear around the corner.
© 2010 Cathy Kidman