Attacking Cancer At Its Roots
Special To The Jewish Week

I didn’t know what real loveliness was until I saw my Aunt Nomi in the hallway of Sloan Kettering Cancer Center wearing a visitor’s gown and a face mask.

“Where are you coming from?” I asked her. I had just left my grandfather’s room, Nomi’s father, when I saw her exiting a different room.

“Don’t know,” she said, slipping the white net covers off of her shoes. “Some guy.” She gestured haphazardly toward a doorway. A yellow sign hung on his door with red capital letters: CONTAGIOUS

“Hasn’t had a visitor in three days,” she said, pulling the mask off and smiling. “I cheered him up good.”

A few years later cancer came to toy with loveliness itself.  Aunt Nomi had ovarian cancer. Stage 3. It kicked our family in the gut. An ocean away in Israel, I tried to exercise away the pain, doing jumping jacks in my living room until I collapsed in a sweaty, sobbing heap.

After the shock came the surgery. They would turn her inside out. I spoke with her on the phone across miles of turbulent blue sea. 

“I love you,” she said as the orderlies wheeled her down the corridor. The doctors gave her a multi-fronted chemo attack, and they were her purple-hearted soldiers. She made them laugh as the poison dripped into her loveliness.

My aunt now sat small and thin in an oversized bed, her head covered by a white turban. Her bright green eyes were scared.  “After everything else,” Nomi said, “I thought I was ready for my hair to fall out. I wasn’t.”

She locked herself in the bathroom, watching her copious hair fall out. The floor clotted with a burnt auburn grass. It was Tisha b’Av — the day the Jewish temple was burned down. She could taste the flames of destruction.

Nomi got rid of her turbans. She wore her stubbly scalp like a halo. People watched her on the street. Cancer survivors. And those who had lost someone to cancer. She was their badge. 

But in front of my grandmother she kept her head covered.  She did not think that her mother, Auschwitz survivor, needed pictorial reminders of her inferno. But one day my grandmother walked into the room and Nomi wasn’t fast enough with her scarf. They looked at each other, my grandmother’s face pasty.

“You know,” my grandmother whispered. “You have a perfect head.”

When the chemo worked and Nomi’s hair grew back, she left it short and gray. Natural. Not a vanity crown, but a survival tiara.  I touched the top of her head; it was soft and smelled like apples and health and loveliness.

Four years went by. Remission glinted in the blushing rays of each morning sun. Just as it touched the horizon — the cancer came back.

“It’s a chronic disease,” Nomi said. “I can live with it. I’ll live with it for a long time.” Silently, I prayed that she was right. The doctors were not happy to have her back, but she made them laugh as they turned her inside out again. Then the purple-hearted soldiers returned from their furlough. The doctors sent her home to wait for the side effects to attack her, but this time she would do things differently.

“I’m not going to let cancer control me anymore,” she said.  “This time I’m going to control cancer.”

We smiled. Nobody controls cancer.

In July 2007, I opened my inbox and found an invite to Nomi’s upsherin. Bright memories tugged at my mind — my three boys, each with their long primrose ringlets snipped, first at the forehead where their phylacteries would one day go. Then the traditional sidecurls, wispy half moons tucked around their ears while the rest of their hair was shorn into a stubbly field of cowlicks. 

The memories of this ritual, rooted in the Kabbalah, were as sweet to me as the honey my children licked off the letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet as we celebrated this new beginning in their lives. I looked at the invite again. Nomi’s upsherin? Upsherin didn’t jibe with a 60-year-old woman. New beginnings didn’t jibe with cancer.

Nomi calculated exactly when her hair was supposed to fall out. She was asking her friends and family to join her for her own version of the Jewish upsherin. By removing her hair before cancer did, she was one-upping cancer big time.

The company at Nomi’s upsherin, which took place at her home in Englewood, N.J., was hesitant. It was a dinner party with man’s immortal enemy. We wanted to kick it right back in the gut. We wanted to hold tight to our Nomi that afternoon and forever. The guests settled in for the anomalous entertainment, chairs scraping against the patio and fireflies winking under an afternoon awning of wheat-colored light.

Nomi, still recovering from her surgery, handed the scissors to her dear friend Roz. She smiled, joked and then spoke.

“Look at me,” she said. “I didn’t choose to have this disease — it chose me. And now you, my dear friends, will once again be faced with a choice. In five minutes I’ll be bald. You can choose to view me as an ill person. You can treat me with pity and distance. Or, you can choose to see me as Nomi. The same person that I was five minutes before. Watch my hair fall out, and see that the real me doesn’t change a bit.”

Roz took the scissors and Nomi’s lush gray hair fell to the floor in scattered tendrils.

“Cancer Shmancer!” Nomi said, pumping her arm in the air as her curls tumbled to the ground. I’ll claim my own hair before you do, she was saying.

It was a new beginning. An upsherin. While Sampson’s strength ebbed when his hair was shorn, my aunt pulled love and satisfaction on an invisible string from the small mound of hair at her feet. She exchanged one small expression of physical beauty for an untouchable satisfaction. On Nomi’s terms.

And the many of us who love her, saved a few strands of her strength to hold tight to ourselves.

Nomi, you have a perfect head indeed.

Yael Mermelstein’s latest book for children, “The Stupendous Adventures of Shragi and Shia,” was published by Mesorah. She lives with her family in Beitar Illit, Israel.