It was a gorgeous wool vest marked down to next-to-nothing at my favorite thrift store, and that is really all I was thinking as I walked into the communal dressing room just as a woman’s wig popped off her head. We were both transfixed by the mass of wavy brown hair as it sailed through the air and gracelessly flopped onto the carpeted floor.
“Oh dear Lord, I thought this was a private dressing room.” Her eyes were wide with shock and already watering as she lifted a hand and lightly touched the side of her bald head, as if to confirm the absence of the wig now on the floor between us. I wanted very much to flee the room, but instead I lunged forward and picked it up.
She looked down to accept it and that’s when I saw the enormous raised scar that ran from the front of her head to the back. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave,” I said.
“No no no,” she said, turning back around to remove another dress from its hangar. “It’s fine. It’s not like it matters. But I can’t keep it on and try on dresses. It’s impossible.”
“That looks nice on you. It’s flattering. A good color.” She was smiling at me in the mirror.
“Thanks. It’s four dollars.” I returned her smile. “I’m getting it.” I yanked it back over my head, almost ripping out one of my earrings.
“Could you help me with the zipper on this? It seems to be caught,” she asked.
I walked behind her and began to jiggle the zipper. She had a thin fringe of hair that ran over her ears and around the back of her head. It reminded me of the balding man who wears a comb over. The stinging red scar reached almost to the base of her skull.
So we were going to have this conversation. “What kind of cancer?”
Glio. Its nickname was The Terminator. It was the worst one, the one I had done stories on, the one that took Senator Kennedy, the one that took almost everyone who got it.
“I’m so sorry.” I couldn’t get the damn zipper to move. I straightened up. “I think it’s busted. The zipper,” I told her.
She shrugged her shoulders out of the dress and let it slip to the ground. “And here I am, shopping.” She began to laugh, and then her shoulders were heaving with sobs.
She told me she was 44 years old. I didn’t tell her I was only a few months younger. She said At least she didn’t have kids. I didn’t tell her I had a boy and a girl.
She was crying harder. “Do you pray?” she asked me.
Before I go any further with this story, I must confess I’m your basic, hideously flawed person, stumbling through life, awkwardly seeking faith, searching for signs, struggling to find the greater meaning in my existence. I expend far too much effort, flailing and casting about. I even call myself ‘The Original Doubting Thomas.’
But as the two of us stood there, me with my cheap vest, her trembling in her bra and underwear, I could see her fear laid bare. I could see her suffering. I knew she felt alone, disconnected from the world, from her place in it. The cancer had cut her loose.
Suddenly, I knew she wasn’t alone. I knew it with a profound certainty I am embarrassed to even try to convey through the inadequacy of words. I felt what I can only describe as a sudden, overwhelming, even staggering, rush of love. And peace. I still can’t believe what I did next.
I opened my arms and I said, “God loves you. And you are not alone.” I had never said anything remotely like that, to anyone, much less a stranger. But I meant it. I knew it. She walked into my arms, sobbing. I held her shrunken body tightly, gently, like I would hold my child.
She pulled back from me, wiping her eyes, telling me she couldn’t believe this encounter, showing me her shaking hands, hugging me one more time. I left the dressing room, promising to pray for her.
As I was paying for my vest at the checkout, a voice behind me said “Ma’am?”
I turned around. There stood a haggard looking man in a battered white t-shirt and jeans. “Thank you for what you did for my wife.”
I needed to tell him that I had done nothing. That I was actually beginning to feel a bit shocked and shaken, like I had just awakened from a really strange dream. The cashier was watching us. “I’m so sorry she’s sick,” I told him. He nodded and turned back toward the dressing room, carrying her purse. I suddenly wanted to sob.
Clutching my plastic bag, I headed for my car. I didn’t know if I had been sent to that room for her. Or if she’d been placed there for me.
I will pray for her. And maybe, even for myself.