As parents, we have to be savvy marketers. "It's just like a mosquito bite," we might say at the dentist's as our kid is about to be jabbed with the first shot of lidocaine. Of course we don't want to tell them what's untrue, but our lives would be immeasurably harder if we always had to call a spade, well, a spade. Doesn't "beach treasure explorer" sound so much better, as do other phrases borrowed from advertising?
Marketers spend months coming up with that perfect phrase, such as "the cheesiest mac and cheese" to encourage our little ones to consume all of its yellow glory," or "cherry flavored cough syrup" to disguise the bitterness of a popular cough remedy. Cherry flavored? Have you ever tried this stuff? It tastes nothing like cherry. It is anything but.
I had a tricky marketing challenge when I started chemotherapy in 2008 and knew that in two or three short weeks, I would be bald as a light bulb. First of all, it required a lot of advertising to convince myself that I was not my hair, and that I would still be me, with or without the waves. But how do you sell it to your kids without freaking them out? In what words do you dress it for your nine-year-old girl and two boys, thirteen and seventeen?
Do I tell them nothing and one day secretly shave my hair off and put on a wig? Nah. Do I say something like, "Mommy's medicine is so strong it will make her lose hair?" Not sure. I was stuck.
Yes, I know, there are all these books that tell you to say exactly this, exactly that, or your child will forever be scarred, have to spend years on the therapist's couch. But I also know my kids: they are clever, they can tell my mood from a mile away, and they see right through my hesitation. How about something surprising then, I thought, something they could look forward to? And while I was at it, could I make it less scary for me?
"Hey kids," I told them, "in another week or two, I will look kind of strange. My hair will be gone because of the strong medicine I need to attack my cancer. Once that happens, I will let you do something fun."
Three pairs of eager eyes were glued to me in anticipation.
"I will give you Sharpies and let you draw anything you want directly on my head!"
Three weeks later, after waking up to a pillow-full of hair, I knew it was time to call on the kids. For reasons I am still not able to explain, I asked Daniel (17) to buzz my head clean. He calmly took off the rest of my shedding fur with his recently acquired shaver.
I became a canvas.
Julia (9) went to work with the enthusiasm only a child could have. Tongue moving across her rose lips, she took time with the designs on the back of my head, and drew something in pink on the very top. Philip (13) was the photographer. The camera flashed above me and I felt celebrity-like, at least for a brief moment. The cool touch of the markers was both calming and daring. Within minutes, I was covered in Sharpie drawings and I didn't care.
Three giggling kids said it was time for the big unveiling. In the hallway mirror, a pair of pink squinty eyes stared right back at me. An oval snout and a loop of a tail left no room for interpretation: there was a piglet on top of my head and it was fluorescent pink! "What's on the back?" I asked apprehensively, prepared for anything by now. Julia's hazel eyes still glistened from laughter when she said, "Mommy is a pretty mommy."
I know what you are probably thinking: are Sharpies as permanent as their marketing says? Well, it took me a few weeks and a lot of scrubbing to get my head clean. Apparently, Sharpie is a lot more than a permanent pen: "When you start with Sharpie, you never know where you'll end up," their tagline says. Entirely true, this one. I ended up with a piglet on my head.
Told she had six months to live due to stage IV gallbladder cancer, Ella fought seven relapses and disposed of several organs until, miraculously, she was declared cancer-free three years ago. This experience reminded Ella what is important in life, and she started writing short stories from her chemo chair. When her 16-year-old daughter recently said, "Remember how much fun we had drawing on your head?" Ella found a pink Sharpie and wrote the above essay. Ella is an author living in Philadelphia. She is currently working on a book, The 50th Deed, prompted by a promise made to her oldest son. Visit her website.