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Michele Serros Headshot

An Unexpected Heirloom

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The second year into my second marriage, the weight gain that typically settles from matrimonial meals had, yes, begun to set in. Contrary to the physical traits of my mother and older sister, my extra padding didn't just get comfy around the waistline, but rather made an odd presence in the form of puffiness in my face and neck. A writer pal of mine squinted and candidly observed, "Yeah, sorta like Botox gone wrong." My husband, however, insisted that I was as beautiful as the afternoon he married me.

That afternoon had been on a warm day in late July of 2011. We exchanged vows on a downtown Manhattan rooftop. I wore my hair the way he loved: loose with light waves. And my wedding gown? Snatched off a padded hanger during a clamorous hour at the J. Crew bridal boutique on the Upper East Side.

An hour? To choose a wedding dress for the biggest day of your life? Unheard of. After all, one's wedding dress symbolizes a milestone, having great potential in becoming a family heirloom -- that is, if my future great-great-granddaughter or grand niece fancies vintage J. Crew in the year 3000.

But among the throngs of all the other freshly-tanned expectant brides, I trusted my intuition. The dress was The One. I felt the the same way only a few days after meeting Antonio, my future husband. I just knew what I wanted.

The swelling presence around my face and neck, however, was a committed union I most definitely did not want. Even after a belated honeymoon trip to Paris, I couldn't bear to look or share any photos that included me and my fluffy facial dough.

Finally, nearly a half a year later, I had had enough. My doctor referred me to an endocrinologist. A few days later after undergoing a biopsy, I received a phone message requesting that I return to the endocrinology office to discuss my lab results. My heart dropped. They only want you to go in when it's serious, right?

Right.

"Cancer!" I cried to my husband, dry heaving in the office parking lot. "OK, it looks like cancer, but he didn't say it was cancer. It just looks like cancer. Right? Right?"

My husband held me in my arms and stroked my hair. "Don't worry. Don't worry," he soothed. "We'll get a second opinion."

But I did worry, even more so when the second opinion and the third opinion proved that it was cancer, squatting in the regions of my salivary glands, and it had metastasized.

"Metastasized? I frowned, partly because as a sometime writer and reader I pride myself in believing I have a somewhat substantial vocabulary. "What is that?"

"Your cancer," my newly-appointed oncologist sighed, "has spread."

My cancer? I didn't recall co-signing for such ownership. Once receiving the news that my status had advanced to Stage 4, I woke up every morning to a day consisting of non-stop fear and crying. I would have pulled out my hair completely from all the panic-riddled anxiety I endured, but I needed to keep any and all of it -- for as long as I could. Suddenly, losing my hair seemed more traumatic than having cancer. I desperately wanted to cling to the hair my husband so loved and, as a young girl, I learned early the ideal image of Latina beauty: hair, long hair enhanced by three-inch plastic curlers and high pressure, heavy duty, jet sprays of Aqua Net. My hair seemed the only reason for fighting the illness.

But a few months into chemotherapy, large nests of black strands soon embedded into the bristles of my hair brush.

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I wanted to cover the shame immediately. Unlike my hour of wedding dress shopping by myself in New York City, I now enlisted my best friend, Reneé and childhood friend, Tracy, to accompany me in choosing The Wig.

"Don't worry!" Tracy gushed. "We will do anything, everything to support you."

"Some friends shave off their own hair in solidarity," I moaned.

I noticed neither she nor Reneé responded to the gentle suggestion.

At Oakland's Beauty Supply Warehouse, literally a warehouse with thousands and thousands of beauty supplies, the choices of synthetic and human hair wigs were overwhelming. Over the pumping beats of 106 KMEL (San Francisco's Home for Hip Hop and R&B!), I pondered the questions: was I more Saturday Night Jazz or Monday Mirage? Cha Cha or Ka-Ching? What would my husband want to see me in? I wondered if my purchase might have an effect on the future, our future. Can a wig worn during cancer treatment have the potential of becoming a family heirloom?

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Inevitably, the summer heat started to penetrate through the synthetic dark brown bob that I chose. Meanwhile, my own hair underneath continued to thin.

At age 47, the feelings of insecurity that typically settle from middle age (and from having an illness) began to set in. Like my mother and sister, I was determined to not allow my age or condition get comfy with limitations. My mother knew how to fight. My sister? She can be a strategic brawler. "Less wishbone and more backbone," I read from an encouraging notecard. A little funny bone couldn't hurt, either.

I finally asked my husband to shave my hair off. I sat on a chair in the kitchen and looked straight out the window. A window. In a kitchen. How I had wanted such a combination when I lived in New York City. Now I had it in Berkeley. See? Healing is all about positive perspective!

And then it was my husband's turn to take a seat. Within minutes, our kitchen floor was covered with piles of our black hair.

"How do I look?" I asked.

My husband held me in my arms and stroked my bald head. "You look beautiful."

Yes, some friends may take action when it comes to offering solidarity. While my husband and I had already exchanged vows on the so-called "biggest day of my life," we were now fully committed to win what might be the biggest battle of both our lives.

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