You have to go down to go up. A basic law of physics we forget as we watch people walk around collapsed in on themselves. I know this. I know this from years of doing just that. I went from a deep inner awareness I honed as a child, to a push, push, push, mentality that left me shoulders back, lower back tight, chest out, chin high, back line tight. Then we moved, not just once, but a bunch of times, and had lovely boys I nursed and held and cradled, and I began to overlay a collapsed posture upon the strive posture I had honed through college and grad school completions. I began to close in on myself. My shoulders drooped in-ward, my heart center spaciousness that had been exaggerated previously, was now smaller and hidden. And my mind went from “what's next” to “what now,” and “what if.” Thought patterns that took hold and were caught in a loop inside my body.

The spine meant to naturally curve in four distinct places, to create a flow of energy from the earth to the sky and back down again, a yielding with gravity instead of a prop or collapse state, in my body was batted down, and with this harsh hash-crossing in my body a harsh hash-crossing of thoughts emerged, looping on a repetitive play. "Is this the best choice?" "Am I right?" "What if..." It took me too many days, years, to realize I had left my body and hovered above it, around it, beneath it, even dragged myself behind it...my mind leaping ahead while my body lagged behind. Grief and shock mixed together to create this state. And my usual joyful self got buried. 

"Can I bring you dinner?" she asked me. We were standing outside, on an early warm June morning as my oldest boy started kinder camp, a week of adjusting to what the fall would bring. Preparing now for his leap ahead. I waited on the concrete, white paved plaza of the school I attended as a child. We were in the midst of discerning our return home, or to my childhood home of Saint Paul, from Santa Fe which had become our home. I wore skinny jeans and flip-flops with my favorite three quarter Kelly-green J. Crew sweater. A flowered bucket hat covered my head and long strands of shoulder length hair peeped out, except where there wasn't any. I had grown used to wearing hats in Santa Fe, after moving there with some major hair loss from baby 3. But no one there asked. People there were used to people wearing hats, used to cancer patients dotted about the city, were used to people with funky hairstyles. It was not a tip off. At least I did not think it was; strong was my denial.

Puzzled I looked at her, this woman with four kids of her own, her oldest, a fifth grader, helping at the kinder camp, and apologized saying, "No, I am good. Why do you ask?" She offered, stammered really, "Well because, I um...just thought maybe I could help you," she glanced upward at my hat with questioning eyes as to what was underneath it. A slow dawning of realization came across my face, I know that is cliche to say, but it really was like a slow light spreading from inside my mind to my outside facial expression, Oh I thought, this woman thinks I have cancer." This had never occurred to me. I know that sounds naive but it had not. Silly, really, when I think of it. But when this woman asked, it took me back. She thinks I have cancer. She called me Beth, my childhood nickname. I am no longer in Santa Fe. I am no longer anonymous. I can no longer hide my hair loss. I felt unsteady on my feet. I waited for the kids to come out the double doors to release me from this conversation, as a warm flush of embarrassment came over me, my cheeks reddening and my eyes holding back tears. I tried to casually explain to her that no, it was not cancer, only alopecia thank goodness--and brush off that I was shaken. 

Only alopecia. A term western medicine gives to unexplained hair loss. My bald spots reemerged and this time at a ferocious pace. One after the next after the next. Strands of hair falling out whenever I touched my hair. Hair, falling into the shower drain in Santa Fe. That shower with the tiled walled mural of fish that covered it. The sink that was decorated in desert tiled flowers of the southwest. Daily I would watch in horror as they slipped down the drain coiling just above it, blocking the drainage, while I stood naked. Head cast downward, eyes filling with salty tears mixing with the shower's hard water pellets, I stood-- a spine compromised, energy stuck, its drainage blocked. 

After showering, I took a piece of toilet paper and wiped the evidence up, that once again I had lost more hair that day than I had grown. Placing the balled toilet paper into the toilet bowl flushing away my fear of "What if I lose all my hair this go around?" Toweling off I would look up, barely making eye contact with myself in the mirror above the sink. A glance at the mirror, a glance at my image, bought disgust, all I could see, could focus on really---my emerging bald spots. I couldn’t see my beautiful deep brown set eyes, nor my long limbed bones, or my clear complexion, only the growing baldness and my eyes like lasers boring into those areas—as if with sight and thought I could make each area grow bigger.

My interior voice loomed like a loud speaker in my head, How could anyone think I was attractive, much less my husband, and I shrunk to hide beneath the hats I wore. While underneath them, I grew more and more bald. Inside my worry and fret stirred, simmered, cooked, bordering into self loathing Who losses their hair? Who looses their hair while pregnant? Writing this pains me. I had grown to practice the deep voice of self-hatred. This voice grew loud and disorientating leading me to discern decisions that were no longer best for me. Pulling me away from my centered self, tossing me into the large realm of space without orientation, without a naturally curved spine, without anything but worry to orbit around. And while I orbited I grew bald on my outside. I collapsed in on myself, wearing a posture of protecting my heart, the startle reaction seen in babies in full effect in me, an adult. The inquisitions of does she have cancer grew. Always followed by the wave of relief from the questioner, that no I do not have cancer only alopecia. These interactions followed me around like my lost strands of hair, lying on the floor, leaving a trail of despair. 


Begin Again

My dad's watch finally died. I hadn't pulled his old Timex out of my bathroom vanity drawer for months, fearful that the battery had conked out since I last checked. But in a moment of nerviness last week, I fished it out and looked at the simple, analog face. The white hands were halted forever at 4:31am or pm, the watch wasn't telling.

Dad's Timex had been in overtime for years. That it kept ticking even after he died, more than three years ago, always seemed a little surreal to me, like the ghostly twitch of a limb you can still feel after it's been amputated. My father was wearing the watch the night he died on his farm in Virginia, and the next day, at the funeral home in Front Royal, the mortician presented it to my stepmother and my sister and me, along with his wedding ring, in a small white bowl. It was a grey, brittle December afternoonall the skeletal trees had finally shrugged off their leaves, dead weighta harbinger of the long, bleak winter that was to come.

In the beige mortuary parlor, my stepmother, Lesley, asked if one of us might like the watch. It was too soon to think about wanting anythingexcept for Dad, still alive, all the horrid cancer scrubbed from his body, the last three months a do-overbut as soon as I saw his watch, I knew I did. When I put it on, the black leather band was soft and water-cracked in places, permanently arced in a semi-circle, molded to his wrist, and much too big for me. But through the curve of it, I could almost feel Dad's wrist, the size and heft of it, the heat, even. A kind of negative space, the absence a presence.

Just moments before, the Timex had been strapped to his freckled wrist. Just yesterday,  his wrist had been alive, veins and pulse chugging weakly, their last hours on the job. But it was now December 10, and Dad was in the next room, sticking out from under a maroon blanket on a metal gurney. His skin was colorless and cold, but for the second time in two days, I surprised myself by stroking his face, kissing him. It was so much easier than I thought, to touch him. He was still familiar, intimate, my father.

After we said goodbye to Dad, we went grocery shopping. Dad and Lesley's close friends were bringing dinner to the farm, and we'd put ourselves in charge of providing dessert. It was a ridiculous assignment, prowling the aisles of Martin's for sugary treats none of use felt like eating. We couldn't decide: devil's food cake or coconut cake. Some kind of weird jiggly flan in a plastic container, or ice cream. Did we want to bake something from a mix? The longer we stumbled through the aisles, the more terrible we felt, as though we were somehow tarnishing Dad's memory by shopping for cheap, store-bought desserts, in a horrible, fluorescent grocery store next to the K-Mart where Dad used to buy his pajamas, probably the black-and-grey checkered pair he'd been wearing when he died. Our grief and shock were so raw, nothing else seemed real.

In a silent, mutual rage, we settled on a fruit tart. The raspberries on top glistened in a sinister, unnatural way. I knew I'd never take a bite. I pushed my infant daughter in her car seat stroller out through the automatic doors and into the pewter glare of the sun trying to press through clouds, insistent but somehow futile. These were the flat winter days I remembered from childhood.

I wore the watch through the winter, even though it was too big for me, and spun around so that the buckle was where the face should be, and the face was where the buckle should be, rubbing on tables and rough surfaces, the kitchen sink. It was getting scratched, and I worried about the bandthe old arc, the memory of Dad's wristbreaking. One day I replaced the band and had the jeweler punch extra holes in the end so that it would fit properly. But once in its rightful place, the grey, moony face was too large for my narrow wrist, and it rubbed my knobby bones in an uncomfortable way. I was grieving my father and my own mortality and my babies getting bigger, all at the same time, and I didn't need any more reminders that time was passing. I took it off and tucked it carefully in a drawer.

Every so often, I would retrieve the watch and check that it was still ticking. Sometimes I held it to my wrist, imagining it wound around Dad's, remembering his skin with its freckly age spots, and sometimes even hearing his voice, deep and affectionate. I came to view the watch as an extension of my father, and an arbiter of my grief. As long as the Timex was still ticking, his death was still fresh and in some intangible form, he was still close, and my grief was still acceptable, reasonable. I began to fear that when it stopped, Dad would be gone altogether, all over again, for good, and I might not be ready to say goodbye. Even as I fingered the watch and put it to my ear to hear its steady ticking, like a heartbeat, I knew this was arbitrary, the kind of fanciful logic that takes over in the spinning, upside-down aftermath of death. The same magical grief-thinking that convinced me I had cancer, too, a sneaky, sympathetic pain that morphed and migrated all over my body for more than a year.

How do we measure grief? In seconds, minutes, hours? Days, months, years? Like love, it can't be quantified. There is no time limit. What I couldn't imagine, when I put the watch in the drawer, was that over time my grief would fade and then reemerge, clutching at my itchy skin and tugging at my bones with a sharp, insistent ache. It wasn't linear, but cyclical. It bore down on me in the darkening days of winter, and lifted with the strength of the springtime sun. With each full spin of the seasons, I could begin to predict its comings and goings. It was growing sluggish, as I was becoming quicker and more nimble. Most of the time now, I could stay just out in front, the fear and grief trailing behind me with outstretched arms, trying to keep up, but falling further and further behind.

When I found Dad's watch the other night, it had been so long since I'd last pulled it out that for a brief, bewildering moment I wasn't sure where to look. But there it was in the top drawer, under an old bottle of pink nail polish. I was not surprised to find that it had stopped. Ever since that afternoon at the funeral home, I'd known this day was coming, and I'd worried I wouldn't be ready when it did. But what I felt instead was a kind of lifting, a faint relief. Dad's watch had finally caught up with him, still and silent, no longer twitching its inexplicable metallic pulse in my drawer.

What propelled me to look for it last week, I cannot say. We had dinner guests, and I had to get back to toss the salad, pour the wine, and make our friends feel at home. I did not press it to my ear or bend the band around my wrist or inspect the face for scratches, wondering which ones were mine and which were Dad's, phantom etchings of a lost life. I clasped it only briefly in in my hand, and then I put it back.

I no longer believe that Dad's dead Timex means my mourning is over or that the clock has run out on my grief. But I do believe that it has shifted, taken a sharp turn one way or the other, and that our paths continue to diverge. When we meet again, we will both be different. Maybe I will be wearing Dad's watch.