Prescription hand cream
Smells like dry-erase markers
Hand-foot syndrome blues
Prescription hand cream
Smells like dry-erase markers
Hand-foot syndrome blues
Chemical taste in my mouth
Tongue feeling fuzzy
Post-chemo mind haze
Vision: flaming undead bears
Being a redhead has always been a big part of my identity. Even when I was a little kid and this way in which I was different was called to my attention a bit more than I would have liked, it was undeniable that it was a part of who I was. When I was a little older, I appreciated my red hair much more, and I was especially happy about it when my granny told me that redheads don’t go grey. Eventually, I learned this is not true across the board, and I developed a kind of existential dread around my hair, fretting about the day it would fade into a stawberry-tinged white (or until I had to do lots of maintenance to have it dyed back to something approaching its former glory).
I had short hair for most of the first couple decades of my life. I tried to grow it out a few times, but I was never able to get past the awkward in-between stage before I broke down and got it cut short again. But beginning when I was around 23, finishing grad school and moving a number of times (combined with a bit of laziness) meant not having a go-to stylist for a while. Next thing I knew, I’d neglected to get my hair cut (aside from the sometimes unfortunate bang trims I’d do myself) for more than 18 months, and it was long. Once I did find a stylist I liked, got my tresses trimmed and shaped, and learned to work with my long hair, it became an even larger part of my identity.
After my hair had been long for a while, I couldn’t imagine going back to a short cut. I could dream about it, though, and the dreams were nightmarish. I don’t recall exactly when, but some time along the line, I began to have dreams in which my hair was cut short against my will. The circumstances varied, but they were always the sorts of situations that make sense in the midst of dreaming but would not be plausible in real life. In these dreams, I would cry. In fact, I would cry so hard, I’d actually start to sob and wake up a blubbering mess. I calmed down once I realized my hair was still intact, but the uneasy feelings from the dream always stuck with me for a while.
I knew there were various possible reasons my hair could be taken from me without my consent—accidents, diseases, hair-fixated stalkers—but none of those were especially high on my list of worries. Instead, I returned to fretting about the increasing frequency with which grey hairs popped up and began to quietly threaten to overtake my scalp. My stylist insisted I was probably the only one who noticed them but still helped me cover them and make it look natural. So, my worries were largely kept at bay.
Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Losing my hair was not my biggest concern, but it certainly was high on the list, along with losing my life and much of my independence (if only temporarily), pain and potential side effects of surgery, as well as many of the other non-hair related ravages of chemotherapy. At first I held onto hope that maybe my particular kind of chemo would not lead to hair loss. Acquaintances told me of cold caps that allowed some people to minimize their hair loss during treatment. As I went through a barrage of tests and got more information about my particular type of cancer and treatment options, my mind was set at ease in learning that my prognosis was quite good. However, there was no getting around it—the chemo was going to make me lose my hair.
I tried to look on the bright side. I love hats and scarves (and have a lot of both). My hair would grow back. I could get a wig. Getting ready to go out wouldn’t take so long. These offered some consolation, but dread, panic, and tears still welled up whenever I imagined my locks coming out in clumps.
So, like many women who have been in similar situations, I decided to exert what little control I had over the situation. I made an appointment to get my hair cut very short. I figured that would give me time to ease into things and would make for less trauma when my hair began to fall out.
Two days before I started chemo, I went from hair to the middle of my back to pixie cut. I’m not going to claim that wasn’t a bit traumatic in and of itself. In fact, I still have a whole stew of emotions about it simmering. I really do like the new cut a lot, but I hate why I had to do it. I also know that my remaining hair will only be around for a few more weeks. I’ve got a wig on order, but that’s never going to be the same. The hair will grow back, but I’ve got a long and difficult road of both hair-related and non-hair–related tribulations ahead of me before that.
For now, I just keep repeating a few things to myself:
Today my age is tweedle and twee. I’m prettier than I used to be.
I don’t recall exactly when my husband Ian first mentioned the 2017 solar eclipse to me, but it was at least 2 years ago. I had been in Peoria in 1994 and had seen the annular solar eclipse, which was pretty cool. Weather permitting, a total eclipse would be much more impressive, so I said was down for a road trip to be in a good viewing spot for that. In the following 700+ days, we revisited the topic occasionally, then with increasing frequency as E-day drew nearer. Vague ideas gradually gelled into firmer intentions, and we eventually had a plan for a fun road trip and great geekery with some good friends.
In early July our plans to travel downstate for the event came up in casual conversation more and more often. I sometimes forget that not everyone is married to someone with an astronomy degree and had not been hearing about the eclipse for years, so I was a little surprised by how many people were unaware there was an eclipse in our near future. By late July/early August, though, people had started to catch on. With each day, I saw more news items and Facebook posts that mentioned the eclipse. I admit I may have rolled my eyes a little at people who were just starting to get hip it. After all, I was an eclipster–I had been into this long before most people.
With just days to go, I began to hear stories of people scrambling to obtain and/or pay exorbitant prices for proper eye-wear and started to think that maybe we should have gotten more than 6 pairs of glasses and made some sweet bank by price gouging. Meanwhile, Ian did the final test runs with our new camera and solar filter. I procured road-trip snacks and chose a knitting project to work on for at least part of our time in the car. Texts began to fly about what we were going to do about watching Game of Thrones on Sunday. That question had not occurred to me as I haven’t watched the show or read the books, but appropriate plans were arranged.
On Sunday evening, Ian and I (along with fellow eclipsters Rachel and Matthew) drove from Chicago to Peoria, the home of the remainder of our crew (Michelle and Friday). That evening’s Game of Thrones episode was waiting on their DVR. As it aired, I occupied myself with other things but did have my attention drawn to the show by flaming undead bears and an epic javelin throw. I also recall a fair bit of shouting at the television. I know close to nothing about Jon Snow, but apparently he doesn’t plan very well.
We set off bright (well, actually somewhat dim) and early Monday morning. Our intended destination was Goreville, IL, but we knew that traffic would be heavy and unpredictable and were content to stop anywhere within the path of totality. For much of the way, we avoided the interstate in favor of state roads, where traffic was certainly heavier than usual but not too bad. We passed the time with activities like a Bohemian Rhapsody sing-along and Six-Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Serial Killer Edition*.
During a pit stop in Vandalia, we perused the souvenirs available at a gas station. In addition to the variety of mainly gun/hunting-themed signs, stickers, and mugs, they offered US-state shaped magnets for every state (well, there were slots for all of them, but several non-IL magnets were sold out, which brings many questions to my mind). Little known fact–Canada is actually a US state (at least according to this display); we had great fun pointing this out to Matthew, who originally hails from the Great White North. We also discovered coffee nut M&Ms (thumbs up) and got some breath-freshening, on-theme Eclipse gum before getting back on the road.
We got on I-57 a bit south of Vandalia, and traffic flowed pretty smoothly for a little while but then slowed dramatically, and before long, it became clear that we were unlikely to make it to Goreville in time. Rather than risk being trapped on the interstate between exits, we got off I-57 in Benton. At that point, we were already within the path of totality but went a little further south, eventually stopping at a park in Johnston City roughly an hour before totality. Ian got the camera set up with time to spare before the eclipse began.
There were a few other small groups of people in the park, and a few more arrived shortly after we did. We laughed and took pictures of each other wearing funny-looking glasses and looked skyward through protective filters as the moon started to gradually edge its way in front of the sun. We hydrated, snacked, and took refuge from the heat in the shade of trees. Someone in the park played the obligatory Bonnie Tyler song. Rachel made PAC-MAN noises. We made pinhole “cameras” with our thumbs and forefingers and looked at the resulting tiny crescents cast upon the ground. We texted with friends and family members both inside and outside the path of totality. The light around us started to dim, resembling that of an overcast day, but with mostly clear skies. An exciting eeriness descended on us, and I began to understand why, before anyone figured out what was really happening astronomically speaking, our ancient ancestors were more than a little freaked out by total eclipses.
Then came totality. I can show you pictures of the sun’s corona and the sky otherwise looking like sunset in every direction. I can try to describe the experience with metaphor and say that there was electricity in the air as everyone in the park marveled and gasped, alternating between excited chattering and speechlessness, as we all drank in those two-ish odd minutes. But I know I really can’t do it justice. I’ve had a few experiences in my life that have made me understand what the word breathtaking truly means–this was one of them.
With totality behind us, we hung out in the park for a while longer, still buzzing about what we had just witnessed and watching as the moon slid out of the sun’s way. When it was all over, we packed up and headed for the nearby Dairy Queen where we enjoyed frozen treats and got our first looks at some of the pictures after they’d been transferred to an iPad. We started to kick around ideas for the 2024 eclipse, which included some talk of a ukulele band (Total Ukeclipse?), as well as customized t-shirts and/or hoodies.
Around 3:30 pm, we started toward home, Michelle and Friday heading back to Peoria, and the rest of us toward Chicago. Traffic was slow, even on state highways. Google Maps projected a travel time of just under six hours, which we took with a grain of salt. Additional grains of salt were added as traffic continued to crawl. After we’d been on the road for two, three, and then four hours, Google Maps continued to predict that we’d arrive home in around five hours. We remained cheerful, reminding ourselves of what an incredible experience we’d just had. Plus, we got to see some cool lightning and a rainbow on the way home.
I recall it was still somewhat light out when Matthew, who planned to work on Tuesday, started to joke that we might need to drop him off at work on the way home, as he might not have time to actually go home first. There was the small problem that he was wearing shorts and needed pants to go to work, but several potential solutions were offered: 1) we could stop at a 24-hour pants emporium; 2) I could knit him some pants, which, with the yarn selection I had on hand, would be technicolor dream pants; 3) he could barter for pants at a rest stop.
Around 9:30, Michelle texted to say she and Friday had finally made it home. At the time, we were at a rest stop north of Effingham (as was roughly 2/3 of the state’s population by the looks of it), still more than 250 miles from home. Rachel urged Matthew to consider not going in to work on Tuesday if we got home after midnight.
It was my turn to drive, and for about two hours, we made slow but decent progress. For some stretches, I actually drove at or near the speed limit. Then, around Rantoul, traffic came to a dead stop. We were stuck with nowhere to turn around and no exit for seven miles. Every few minutes, we inched forward a little. Signs told us the left lane was closed 4.5 miles ahead. Reports indicated that this lane closure was supposed to have been suspended in the days surrounding the eclipse, but apparently that had not happened, and there had been no signage in advance to divert traffic to an alternate route on a state highway. However, short time later, when blinding sheets of rain began to roll through the area, I was actually grateful not to be driving more than a few miles per hour.
About two hours later, we finally reached the next exit, stopped to switch drivers, and continued on Highway 45. Some time around 3:30 am, I remarked that Rachel’s previous comment about possibly getting home after midnight seemed like a quaint, distant memory. We finally made it to our house just after 4:30 am, approximately 13 hours after we’d departed. Rachel and Matthew left for their apartment, Matthew having long ago abandoned plans to go to work (with or without pants). As Ian and I collapsed into bed, we mumbled about plans to sic undead flaming bears on the Illinois Department of Transportation.
All that said, it was totally worth it.
* Eg, John Wayne Gacy: 1) Brian Dennehy portrayed John Wayne Gacy in To Catch a Killer. 2) Brian Dennehy was in First Blood with Sylvester Stallone. 3) Sylvester Stallone was in The Assassins with Julianne Moore. 4) Julianne Moore was in The Hunger Games movies with Donald Sutherland. 5) Donald Sutherland is the father of Kiefer Sutherland. 6) Kiefer Sutherland was in Flatliners with Kevin Bacon.
Wednesday was our last full day in Barcelona, and although I wasn’t looking forward to the end of vacation, I had also been eagerly awaiting this day, as it would mean adding another European Ferris wheel to my collection. We started off breakfast (which included a delicious avocado waffle) at Alsur Café Luria and then headed over to Plaça de Catalunya and inquired at an information where to catch the bus to Tibidabo. The woman in the booth told us the park was closed, and I quickly became crestfallen, thinking I was going to be cheated out of yet another European Ferris wheel opportunity. “Are you sure?” I don’t even remember whether was Rachel or I who said it. “Just the other day, people here told us that the park was open Wednesday through Sunday.”
“Hang on, let me double check.” The woman consulted her colleague in the booth and then her computer. During what seemed like several minutes but was probably more like 45 seconds, I told myself there were plenty of other awesome things we could do if the park was closed, and I scanned my brain for options—visit the Picasso Museum and the chocolate museum, buy more souvenirs, drink more cava… Finally the woman spoke again. “My mistake. The park is open today.”
I admit that I heaved a sight of relief as she directed us toward the right bus stop, and I briefly wondered if I was a tad too emotionally invested in the idea of riding another Ferris wheel. It was a fleeting thought though, and before long, we were gleefully aboard the bus to Tibidabo. Well, I was grateful. Rachel was somewhat apprehensive. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, she wasn’t super excited about the Ferris wheel as she isn’t terribly keen on heights (a bit ironic for a flight attendant if you think about it), but, being the awesome friend that she is, she’d agreed to ride with me. Actually, I myself am kind of iffy about heights, but my fear is very situation-specific. I stay as far away from the edges of cliff edges as I can, and even steep staircases get my heart racing. However, if I’m enclosed and feel like I can’t easily stumble and/or fall, I tend to feel OK.
When we got to Tibidabo, of course, we headed immediately to the Ferris wheel. It’s a small park, and the lines were not long, so in no time we were riding Giradabo, another European Ferris wheel dream finally being realized. After that, we went on a ride call Talaia, which Rachel and I referred to as Sky Bucket. Rachel held on tightly and bravely grinned through gritted teeth as Sky Bucket carried us up almost as high as the statue atop the nearby Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
We rode the roller coaster and attempted to ride the log ride, but one of the logs got stuck (you might even say there was a log jam!), and it was shut down. We decided that was our cue to stop for some beer and tapas.
We also rode the carousel and the aerial railway ride. Both were fun, but I couldn’t help but feel that some of the aerial railway experience was lost on us because it included narration that was far behind beyond our poor Spanish comprehension. What I can tell you is that, one point we apparently flew into the sun, which was not as hot as one might think. A short time later, we passed through some sort of laboratory where strange beings were being created and grown. Then a cackling witch popped out of nowhere and startled the bejesus out of us.
We also visited the automaton museum at the park, which was cooler and much less creepy than I’d expected. It wasn’t completely without a creepiness factor, though. One of the automatons featured both monkeys and clowns, so Rachel was not the only to face some fears that day. The hell automaton was also a bit creepy but also kinda cool, and the one with ballroom dancing was just comically fast.
Next, we went to the hall of mirrors, where we donned oversized plastic gloves. They made our hands sweat like crazy, but they prevented fingerprint smudges on the mirrors, which really would have detracted from what as a fun and kind of trippy experience.
We made it out of the mirror maze without having to consult Google Maps (not that we would have been any less confused had we done so), rode the Ferris Wheel one more time, and then caught the bus back down to the city. Seated in front of us was an adorable redheaded toddler (and her parents), who began smiling shyly at us and then started making funny faces (which we, of course, reciprocated). After a few pleasant minutes of that, she started to shriek for no apparent reason, and that was what she continued to do for pretty much the rest of the ride.
Once back in the city, we did some more souvenir shopping (my end-of-vacation souvenir panic was starting to manifest) and ate dinner at Vegetalia. In the evening, on the way back to our hotel, we caught the Montjuïc fountain show.
Our voyage home the next day was not quite as smooth as our trip out had been, but not bad, all things considered. We didn’t get on our first-choice flight (to Atlanta) but got one to New York (JFK) a couple hours later. At JFK, we took a bus to the C terminal where the next flight to Chicago was to depart, but shortly after we arrived there, the gate changed, so we got back on the bus to the B terminal and couldn’t help but notice several emergency vehicles headed toward C terminal. We didn’t get on that first flight, and the next one was supposed to depart from…you guessed it–C terminal! However, it wasn’t due to leave for a few hours, so we decided to hang out at a wine bar in B terminal just in case there was another gate change. There, with a slight wine buzz and some jet lag, we had the somewhat surreal experience of being at JFK while watching the TV news, which featured people at JFK being interviewed about a fire that had broken out at the Panda Express in the C terminal (hence, the emergency vehicles).
Ultimately, we did end up going back to C terminal, and we got on the next flight by the skin of our teeth. In fact, the gate agent, who was non-revving on our flight, told us that he’d agreed to sit in the jump seat so we could get on the flight. We showered him with our sincere thanks, and I even offered him one of my mustache cookies, but he declined.
When we arrived in Chicago, it was late and we were pretty exhausted, but we were pleased to find that, not only had our checked bag beaten us home, but it was intact–no wine bottle breakage! ¡Olé!