"Which pizza topping do you want?" is a question I've asked my Nana plenty of times. As a kid, Saturdays meant one thing: a trip to the mall in Fort Lee, New Jersey followed by lunch. Sitting in a Hell's Kitchen restaurant, I already knew that she wanted pepperoni. But we've grown accustomed to this pre-order banter over the past 25 years of my life, and it just flows naturally. But on that cool April day, she gave me a different answer.
"What I really want I can't have anymore," she replied.
At first, this confused me. Did she recently develop an allergy to pepperoni? Was she on a (very unnecessary) diet? My mom and I stared blankly at her for a minute. "I can't smoke anymore," she said quietly.
Before I had time to react, my gorgeous, 82-year-old Nana -- the one with the stellar wardrobe, perfect hair, 40-year medical career that she still has today -- pulled out a stack of papers. There were test results from her doctor, information on surgeons who specialize in removing tumors and a whole lot of words I didn't understand. Despite her cigarette pack-a-day habit, I spent most of my life believing she was invincible. She slipped under the radar for 82 years, and cancer waited until now to rear its ugly head at her, and at our tiny, fiercely-close family of three.
So we sat there half-eating, mostly in silence, sprinkled with bursts of hysterics (for which I apologize to our poor waiter,) and tried to make sense of the news -- but I couldn't. How is it that one day I'm arguing with Nana about whether or not blue nail polish is cool and the next day regretting every argument I've ever had with her at all?
For the record, while we share an intense love of good style and beauty, we rarely see eye-to-eye on anything besides the importance of a red lip. Nana taught me everything I know about fashion, but she likes to match her shoes to her belt, I like to mix it up. She lines her lips religiously before applying lipstick, I just slather it on. She also has a distaste for tattoos and drastic haircuts. Much to her dismay (and eventual semi-approval,) I have the former, and I know she wouldn't react well to the latter, either.
Regardless, I couldn't stop myself from reacting to her news in the only way I knew. I am my Nana's granddaughter after all -- I should have known that our conversation would land me in a salon chair for hours.
My long locks felt as though they were actually tangled in shit -- with bad news, with the weight of her diagnosis, with the fear of what would happen next. And I wanted it gone... all of it. And even though I knew Nana would hate it, I chopped off nine inches of my hair.
It was Mother's Day and the day before her surgery when I saw her next. As expected, she didn't exactly love my hair. "Is it... thinner?" She asked, which thrilled me because it's not everyday she asks if something about me has gotten thinner.
"It's just hair, Nana, it will grow," I replied. In a twisted way, my new cut gave us a few minutes to focus on something aside from the surgery. And without skipping a beat, Nana said, " I guess you're right," and we laughed for the first time in a long while -- mostly because we finally found something to agree upon.
It's been a short four months since that day in the restaurant, and a short two months since the surgery. Nana and I may still be arguing about blue nail polish, and my hair may still be too short for her liking, but we've both learned something from this experience: even when things (like life, and hair) get messy, they always end up being sort of OK.