Cancer Chic — Lessons in Fashion
Yesterday was my first real day back at the office, the first day trying to ease back into a somewhat normal schedule after coming off my last round of IL-2 treatments. I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee before my staff was ridiculing me. Making fun of a guy with cancer. Seriously?
Okay, technically they weren’t ridiculing my cancer. They were mocking what Dena refers to as my “cancer wardrobe.” I should make her get on here and explain this particular term of art. It started after the surgery to remove my kidney last March/April. While recovering from the surgery, I was often cold. I would wander around the house with sweats and a big sweatshirt or something, looking like I was trying out for the high school wrestling team — as if some kidneyless sonofabitch is ever going to get accepted onto the team with all his whining about dehydration and bathroom breaks. So I finally asked Dena if we could find a cardigan sweater. To which she rolled her eyes and, I’m pretty sure, questioned my manhood. Not one of those cardigans, I said. Not Mr. Rogers. I’m looking for the Irish sailor or Hemingway style: wool and rugged and thick, you know – manly, by god. The kind of sweater that suggests you do murderous things on a cargo dock in the cold rain.
So off we went to the mall, me determined, Dena reluctant. I told the salesguys at various men’s stores what I was looking for and they all said the same thing: Nothing. Just the eyeroll thing. I would then be informed that it was Spring and sweaters aren’t really a spring fashion. The word “moron” was never used directly.
At this point, Dena was getting agitated. Her husband was fighting cancer and all he wanted in the world was a freakin’ cardigan sweater. Other people get sent to Disneyland, could we not find a ridiculous sweater for her fashion-deranged husband to help him in his perverse belief that Just The Right Sweater would somehow beat this disease? Was there no Make a Wish Foundation for clothes whores?
Eventually we found a kind of orphaned old white cardigan buried in one of the back bins of one of the faceless department stores in one of the sprawling malls . Though lacking in much personality – think of it as the Al Gore of cotton products – the sweater was thick enough to keep me warm. It was like the last sad mutt at the pound. We took it.
But it kept nagging me all year, this need for Just the Right Sweater. And now, after having undergone two rounds of IL-2 treatment at Duke, I have come to understand that one of the more lasting side effects, besides fatigue, is that my internal thermometer is out of whack and that I’m always cold. I cranked up the heat in my house, even as Spring has come on full force, trying to find a way to sleep without shivering. My poor mother- and father-in-law were in town to help out but were not prepared for such sauna-like conditions. I expected to find them in the guestroom waving Chinese fans and clutching cubes of ice in their hands. Maybe a bucket of icewater into which they could periodically duck their heads.
Things had to change.
So I went online and googled “men’s cardigans.” I was very specific in my terms. “Men’s.” As in manly. I learned something. There are different kinds of men out there. Most of the sweaters that came up were thin substanceless sweaters with black-and-white diamond patterns or alarming pastels, something you’d find an androgynous French model wearing during a photo shoot at some two-foot circumference table outside a brick café on the West Bank, complete with a fan to blow his tousled hair towards the river.
So I tried again. This time I googled “men’s wool cardigan irish sweaters.” That did it. This was stuff right out of The Old Man and the Sea. This was Hemingway with his bourbon and crazy-toed cats in Key West. This was Perfect Storm fashion.
So of course I bought one. It was my third by this point. My wife was stunned. “Seriously?”she asks. “Three cardigans?”
What? She has a closet full of shoes; I have a closet full of cardigans. There seems to be some kind of His and Hers balance there. (She informed me, by the way, that she was not happy that I had learned how to shop online for clothes, as this was cutting into her online shoe shopping budget. So we compromised, I stopped.)
So my new cardigan is thick brown wool with a flannel interior. Talk about warm! Boy am I ready for … uh, summer. Admittedly my timing seems a little off. However, there is a strong likelihood that I will return for new rounds of treatments in another month, and let me tell you – that sweater will come in handy whether it’s 98 degrees outside or not.
I seem to keep flubbing up the cancer fashion thing. When I went back to work yesterday I knew that fatigue and still-sensitive feet would be a problem. I’m still getting waves of burns and occasional peels, and the hard edges of dress shoes can be a little rough to bear. So I decided to try out the David Letterman thing and wear tennis shoes with my slacks and business jacket.
Evidently only David Letterman can do the David Letterman thing.
The moment I walked in — I’m not going to name any names but Kate Kennedy rolled back in her chair with a fair amount of the dramatic flair that only Kate Kennedy can truly flair and said, “Oh. My. God. You look like an old man who’s been let loose from the old folks home. What is that you are wearing?”
“Uhm, business shoes hurt my feet right now.”
“But seriously, hello, white? Why? How can you go out with white tennis shoes and black slacks?”
She peered above the tops of my shoes. “Are those white socks? You can NOT tell me you are wearing white socks.” I expected her to do that thing where you use your fingers to snap an imaginary Z into the air as a point of emphasis.
Now I’m sweating, feeling cornered. The other women in our row have turned and are getting into the action and I lose track of who is saying what in the critiques ricocheting from desk to desk like a pinball game gone bad. All I know is that I am a pound of chum thrown into shark infested waters. There is a fashion faux paux feeding frenzy underway and I am caught dead to center in its swirl.
Somebody asked why I didn’t just go more casual – stick to jeans and tennis shoes. “What’s the point of being a partner if you can’t dress however you want?”
Was I not casual enough? No suit, no tie? I start to take off my sport jacket.
“No, no, no, no no nooooooooo,” somebody says, hands up in the air like she’s in church. “Now you look like a waiter. Black slacks, white button-down shirt and white tennis shoes? Comeon.”
“No, a busboy. That’s definitely a busboy look.”
“It’s the socks.”
“No, it’s the black pants and white socks.”
“Really, it’s the whole thing.”
“It’s got to change.”
“Come back tomorrow more casual.”
“Lose the shoes or wear jeans.”
“Don’t come back in that busboy drag again.”
My cancer wardrobe has clearly been a disaster from day one – from the Great Cardigan Sweater Hunt to the infamous Bus Boy Drag Incident. I walk back to the kitchen and get a cup of coffee and hide in a corner for a while, get my heart rate down. I will not tell my wife about this verbal assault I have suffered; she would not be sympathetic. Indeed she would join in with the other female persecutors. I would become a martyr tossed into the gladiator ring of fashion, surrounded by she-lions, their claws sprung, their scents alert. It would be a quick death but a bloody one. And then the whole scene would become just one more chapter in the Great Cancer Wardrobe History that Dena is writing.