May had just entered her teenage years. She was a chatterbox who loved horses, George Strait, and Rice Krispie treats. May and her mom were appalled that I didn’t know any George Strait songs. They couldn’t believe I’d never slid my feet into cowboy boots or ridden a horse bareback. I was amazed they had never left their state or seen any Audrey Hepburn movies. Our worlds were worlds apart. I came to know May and her mom when I volunteered with pediatric bone marrow transplant patients in Minneapolis.
May and her mother ventured to the great tundra from what May described as the dusty armpit of Texas. They came to seek treatment for May’s leukemia and left family behind – a step-dad, three siblings, and grandparents. They left their double wide trailer that they had just proudly paid off and settled into a suite at the Ronald McDonald House. I spent many months with May and her mom. I helped with errands and sat with May to give her mom some rest. I chauffeured visiting family to and from the airport and helped with jaunts to the grocery store and pharmacy. Over time May and her mom opened my eyes to better understand their life in Texas. I ate Twizzlers and watched Audrey Hepburn movies with them, the three of us curled up on the couch together. I remembered what it was to be 13. As with all my patients, I learned more than I taught and I received more than I gave.
One weekend, several weeks into treatment, May’s grandmother was coming for a visit. She had braced herself for the brutal cold of Minneapolis in February. She hadn’t braced herself for much more. By the time Grandma was coming, May had lost her auburn tinged mane of hair. She was completely bald, as many patients in treatment were. May wore a knit cap to ward off the chill but was otherwise comfortably bald. She felt that scarves were too dramatic and ball caps were too boyish. I joked that she should have her step dad send up her cowboy hat to really give the doctors a jolt of Texas pride. She slapped my elbow and guffawed at my silly idea. May was comfortable with herself. She stood tall and tossed her head back with equal parts grace and attitude as if she had locks of hair to flick back out of her face. Her confidence struck me then, and twenty years later, strikes me still.
A box came from Texas. I thought it just might be that cowboy hat after all. May read the card and threw it down in disgust. Doors were slammed. Her mother and I looked to each other and were intrigued. Her mom peeked into the box with reticence. The she slammed it shut and followed May to their room. I sat bewildered, refraining from looking into the box postmarked Pandora. May slipped into the shower while her mom explained to me what had just transpired.
May’s grandmother, who was shaken at the prospect of seeing her 13-year-old grand-daughter with no hair, had sent a wig. In her note she asked May to put it on when they picked her up at the airport. I hung my head, feeling the weight of Grandma’s fear and May’s frustration. May was fighting for her life, quite literally, and had shown more grace and confidence and pride than any girl or woman I had known. She was comfortable in her fragile skin at a young age, something I have yet to fully accomplish at 43. And her grandmother knocked her down, making her feel broken, like less of a person. While May’s mother and I talked, we heard the water shut off and waited for May to emerge. Then we heard the hair dryer. Imagine our surprise. May had a bald head but was blasting the hair dryer. She came out standing tall and giggled when we looked like loonies wondering what she had been doing. “I was cold and dried off my body,” May gleefully snickered. She smiled and told us her grand idea.
On the morning that May’s grandmother was arriving, May was peppering her bald head with temporary tattoos. She adorned lightning bolts and Harley logos and sports teams all over her bare noggin. This feisty girl wanted to teach Grandma a lesson. And whoa nelly she did! Luckily we were close to the hospital in case Grandma had a heart attack. She got a hearty laugh instead and apologized all weekend. Everything I ever learned about self-image and acceptance came from the simple actions of a 13-year-old girl.