Makeup, Hairdos and Tattoos

After thirty years of marriage and lots of conversations starting with, “Barry…We need to talk…”, one would think that every subject imaginable had been discussed.  Occasionally those conversations happened simply because Libby wanted to talk, but many times when she said, “Barry…We need to talk…”, it meant I was in trouble and it didn’t take long to discover that, with Libby, there was a right and a wrong, a black and a white but very few greys.

Following Libby’s diagnosis of breast cancer we were introduced to a whole host of subjects that, until now, we had never even considered, much less discussed. We were both making adjustments continually because our lives were completely different BC (Before Cancer) than they were AC (After Cancer):

BC (Before Cancer) Libby never had to advise me as to the best methods for washing, conditioning, drying, combing and fixing her hair.

BC I never would have dreamed of offering an opinion about whether Libby would look better with spiked hair or with it parted on the side in a “boy cut”.

BC I never thought that Libby would ask me to help her apply her Merle Norman foundation, makeup, blush and eye liner stuff.

BC I never dreamed that we would be casually viewing photos and discussing breast implants options with a plastic surgeon.

And finally, BC I never dreamed that one day I would be encouraging Libby to get a tattoo:

Following chemo treatments, on Libby’s first visit to the radiologists’ office, a bubbly young nurse was escorting us back to the exam room when she nonchalantly turned to Libby and asked in her perky little Smurf voice, “So, Mrs. Gilley,  what kind of tattoo are you planning to get?  Libby stopped dead in her tracks, unwilling to go any further as she called out to the nurse who had continued walking down the hallway. “I’m not real sure I understand what you are talking about Nurse Perky, but I’m certainly not getting a tattoo!”,

(OK,  I took some literary license there, Libby didn’t actually call her “Nurse Perky” because in the last few minutes Libby had taken the time to learn our nurse’s real name, her hobbies, how many siblings she had, what church she attended, where she did her postgraduate work, her favorite Christian artist and who she was dating.  I, however, did not even bother to learn her name, so Nurse Perky it is;  besides this is my story.)

Nurse Perky came back to where Libby was planted and gently guided her into the exam room as she explained that some people get a tattoo to cover up the radiation alignment marks that she was about to receive.  Perky also said that it became a kind of “badge of honor” for many of their female cancer patients to incorporate the ink spots into the eyes of a dolphin or the antenna of a butterfly tattoo.

After dropping the tattoo bombshell, Nurse Perky left the room just as Dr. Getner entered to find an agitated Libby who explained as succinctly and briskly as she was able that she would not be getting ink dots, initials, a dolphin or a butterfly tattoo, today or at any time in the future and if that was what this procedure was going to involve, she would just leave now.

Dr. Getner had unknowingly walked into a hornet’s nest as he attempted to explain to Libby that alignment was critical and permanent ink tattoos were the preferred method, adding that they had tried using a Sharpie to make the marks but if it wore off then it would mean a long involved process of re-marking and equipment re-calibration.

I offered to Libby, what I thought were some helpful suggestions for a tattoo such as “mom”, “Barry”, and a heart with our initials, etc. but I received one of those looks that made me reconsider my input altogether.

A compromise was reached when Libby earnestly reassured her doctor that if he used a Sharpie, the marks would stay on for the duration of the six-week treatment.  We kept that promise by taping plastic over the Sharpie marks every time Libby showered and strategically placing Band-Aids to prevent her clothes from wearing the marks off for the next two months.  Those precautions and retouching with a Sharpie anytime the mark started to fade were the only things that kept Libby from becoming a tattooed lady and slipping into the dark side.

The  technicians took this picture to show me that she even smiled during radiation treatments:


“OK, Now I Remember—— What I Forgot!

As Libby’s hair began to grow back following the chemotherapy, her once dark hair came in solid white and began to curl into hundreds of fine little ringlets perfectly sized to wrap around a pinky finger.  Soon after the goose down hair started growing those same damaged hair follicles began producing thicker and darker hair, now capped with those fine, curly, white tips.  Libby was not accustomed to change in any form, especially when it came to her hair, so she was slow to embrace the new look and unwilling to be seen in public without one of her wigs.

Nathan, Jerod and I were commenting on the unique and attractive look of Libby’s hair one Saturday night during one of our planned family nights.  Embarrassed by the compliments and the attention she was getting, Libby got up from the couch to go start dinner but after standing, she awkwardly stepped sideways, and nearly passed out as three sets of hands gently guided her back to her seat.  A combination of residual chemo drugs and radiation treatments often affected Libby’s balance and rising quickly from a seated position increased those odds.

Even after a diagnosis of cancer, which made us all reevaluate our priorities, it is embarrassing how quickly each one of us became overly busy with life.  In fact we all became so preoccupied with our own lives that we had to schedule family nights at our house.  This particular night was planned to be a simple meal around the dinner table, but after the light-headed spell subsided, we convinced Libby that riding in the truck to and from St. Elmo and sharing a pizza would probably net us more family time than cooking at home.

Noticing the time and worried that the restaurant would soon close, we hurriedly gathered up to leave.  Libby never liked to be rushed when going anywhere, so it she became anxious as I hustled her toward the truck glancing back over her shoulder.  “What are looking for? I asked,  “I don’t really know, ” Libby answered, “it just feels like I’m leaving something”, then after making one last unsuccessful sweep of the room, we left for the restaurant.

Mr. T’s Pizza is our favorite pizza place located just a few miles from our house in a condensed little area of St. Elmo, TN with several intersecting roads, pedestrians, tourists and restaurants all within walking distance of one another.  Libby flipped down the sun visor on her side of the truck as we approached the restaurant so she could check her makeup in the small mirror, a move that always obscured my view out the passenger side of the truck.  Then, just seconds into her primping session, we all heard the scream.

I instantly hit the brakes, anticipating air bag deployment and bracing for impact; I was confident we were about to crash, then, after several seconds, during which time no one died, I asked, much louder than was necessary, “WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?”  Libby calmly turned toward me with an awkward, sheepish grin as she flipped her wrist to close the sun visor/mirror combination.  Cocking her head to one side and shrugging her shoulders she said in a soft voice, “Now I remember what forgot!”

Still in shock over the scream,  angry and confused, I whined, “What did you forget Libby?”  She turned her shoulders a full 90 degrees to look straight at me and then Libby struck a pose while pointing to her head in a gesture which was supposed to make it obvious why she was upset.  Libby’s eyebrows (okay, what used to be her eyebrows) were raised and her head cocked to one side as if I should be able to guess what was going on without any hints.  Dumbfounded, we all three stared at Libby and at one another without venturing a guess as to why she was so upset.  Eventually giving in with disgust Libby said, “My hair guys! My hair, I can’t believe none of you noticed!  I left my hair at home, I can’t go anywhere looking like this.”

Libby and Barry at Pizza Hut without her wig

I probably should not have laughed as hard as I did but we had seen her so much without the wig that it never crossed our minds that she had left it.  It was so traumatic to Libby that later she equated the experience to the nightmares common in young school-age children who dream of going to school but forget to put on clothes.

The boys and I pulled out all of the stops to convince Libby to go into the restaurant including but not limited to: “Mom you look great. There are only a few cars in the parking lot.  No one will know us there,”  and finally, “No one else has a hair do like yours”.  Hunger pains and a compromise finally convinced her that we had to eat somewhere.  The compromise was that we would go to Pizza Hut instead of Mr. T’s because in Libby’s words, “I don’t know anyone who goes to Pizza Hut anymore, but if we go to Mr. T’s we are sure to see someone we know.”

That day was a turning point in Libby’s post cancer treatment life and a huge boost to her self-confidence because the next morning Libby went to church for the first time ever without a wig and she made short hair look awesome.

Libby's first trip out without her wig

Hair Today, Gone Tommorrow


A few years ago, Libby was writing in a diary-type book designed to help record your life’s memories and the question was asked, “What things do you wish you had done differently?”  Libby wrote this response, I wish I hadn’t been so self conscious.  I thought I was not attractive and I spent a lot of time trying to make myself as attractive as possible.  If I had to go anywhere without my makeup or without my hair dried, curled, etc. then I would not go!”

Libby was raised in that distinctly southern tradition which dictated that a proper young lady had make herself “presentable” before leaving the house, her outfit had to be coordinated, her hair had to be fixed (no cover-up hats, or pony tail short cuts) and all makeup, including lipstick, had to be diligently applied. Throughout her life Libby never wavered in that effort to always look her best; in fact Libby’s nurses commented on the morning of her mastectomy that they had never seen a patient arrive at 5 AM on the day of surgery looking so beautiful with gorgeous hair and full makeup.

That long, perfectly coiffed hair was the first thing I noticed about “the new girl” walking along the covered sidewalk between the cafeteria and our old Junior High School.  Although Libby changed hair styles often during our 35 years together they were (to me at least) subtle changes and somehow I was caught off guard each time by that dreaded question, “Well, do you notice anything different?”  I would nervously look her over from head to toe while she put her hands on her hips and impatiently tapped her toe against the floor, waiting on me to compliment her because she had just paid someone $35 to cut off 7/8 of an inch of her hair and curled it in a slightly different direction (but I digress).

When we first heard the word cancer used in the same sentence as chemo, Libby and I both knew this hair thing was going to be emotional.  In order to lighten the mood and to sincerely demonstrate my sympathy, I offered what I thought to be a noble gesture by shaving my head.  Even after years of marriage Libby and I often struggled with communication, but this was not one of those times because her intent was very clear when she said  “You are not cutting off your hair!  There is absolutely no reason for us both to be bald, besides I plan on buying a wig and then you will simply look stupid!”  Then, as if the point needed more emphasis, Libby explained that if I cut my hair,  I could expect any and all physical contact to cease until such time as all of my hair grew back.  I waited a long time before I even trimmed my hair again.

After our first trip to the infusion lab for chemotherapy one of the nurses took Libby aside and talked to her about her hair, “Libby,” she said, “cut your hair much shorter than you ever have in your life and let that new look sink, then it will not be as much of a shock when you loose it all, besides short hair is less messy and it will be easier for Barry to unclog the drain in the bathtub.”  I have included a photo that I made just after Libby’s short hair cut, but after a few days her hair was coming out by the handfuls and she asked our youngest son, Nathan, to buzz the remaining hair.  Afterwards Libby explained that loosing her hair was so traumatic she didn’t want me to be the one to cut it all off.

Libby was given Andromycin (often referred to by cancer patients as “The Red Devil”) as a part of her treatments which was the main drug that caused her hair to fall out.  Libby told me one day, “I think the Red Devil is truly ‘of the devil’ because every hair on my head fell out, I’m getting mouth sores, my eyebrows came out and now my eyelashes have fallen out, but do you what is the worst thing about this drug?”  Now I had a pretty good indication from the tone of her voice that this was a rhetorical question, so I shook my head and waited, then Libby finished her thought, “I know the drug is ‘of the devil’ because I still have to shave my legs!!!”

We made several trips to several different wig stores and we bought a lot of wigs in that 5 year period but nothing ever came close to her own gorgeous long black hair that truly was “her glory” (1 Corinthians 11:15). Libby had cut, curled, brushed, rolled and washed her long hair for over 50 years and in just under a week it was all gone.

Cancer is one of those things that keeps relentlessly taking away things away from you until there is nothing left for it to take from you.