I was crescent-mooning lemons the winter afternoon that my hair fell out. It was mid-January, the cold season, and I had been headachy all morning. I suspected a virus blooming in me, influenza that I could rinse away with mugs of ginger tea, cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne. But it occurred in an instant, with a synchronized multiplicity of scalp itch sprouts. I lifted a finger to scratch, but my blonde hair had already dropped to the kitchen floor in a clump at my feet.
On my knees, I gathered the strands in a bundle, held it to my chest. It wilted, browned, and disintegrated immediately: my hair bouquet fast-forward-decomposing in my hands.
In the examination room an hour later, I unwrapped my head from the moss-green silk scarf I had been hiding under. I had chosen the scarf’s hue to bring out my eyes.
What do you do? the doctor asked me. The paper sheet on the blue examination table clammed beneath my thighs.
I’m a writer—well, I work as a gardener, I said.
Okay, the doctor said. Envision a garden. We must figure out what’s going on underground. He tapped his own abundance of brick-coloured curls, thick as frayed rope. Stress? Pregnancy? Thyroid disorder? Anemia? Polycystic ovary syndrome? Psoriasis? Seborrheic dermatitis? Premature menopause? Weight loss? Traction alopecia?
No, I said. No, no, it can’t be that.
We’ll have to run some tests, he said, and scrawled code into his white notepad.
This pain is temporary, I told myself. I bought a wig entitled “Rising Star” by Christie Brinkley in burgundy blush. With a mono part, long, softly curled layers fall below the shoulders and are the highlight of this sexy silhouette, the packaging promised. I only hoped, ignored mirrors by day and windows by night.
I swallowed cocktails of vitamins, pills the size of hummingbird eggs with brand names like high-end furniture that the Internet told me would help. They did nothing.
My sister, a prolific knitter, fashioned me toques in shades like raspberry, African violet, café au lait.
You’re still a beautiful woman to me, my lover said, post-coitus, palming my crown like a crystal ball, a blanched fallen planet, a Buddha belly. I would like to tattoo it, he said. He was a very talented tattoo artist.
Sure, I said.
What would you like?
A field of daffodils, please.
With the tattoo gun buzzing to my brain, I read Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd…
I lost my breasts in the last week of January over a homemade lunch of pesto fusilli. I felt a strange sting in each nipple, and lifted my sweater to see that they had retreated to my areolas like pushed-in pacifiers. Outside, it hailed.
My breasts sunk inside my chest, and I think they infected my heart.
Further medical tests and procedures followed in bleary succession.
I increased my therapy appointments to Mondays and Fridays.
Do you feel like less of a woman? my therapist asked me, or at least, implied.
No! My breasts were never large, but they were mine, familiar, and balanced in their tangerine weight. I held them when I was sad. I clutched them when I was nervous or cold.
Don’t look at me! I snarled every time my lover attempted tenderness: a kiss between the collarbones, a neck massage, a shoulder squeeze. I wouldn’t let him see me naked for a week.
Never before, though, had I touched myself with such vigour. Orgasming became a white-thoughted ritual: a button I pushed to momentarily burst forget. My clit ruddied into the sorest, but most loved berry. I bought sex toys online and wrote hopeful poems after them:
to produce joyfulthings within
My counsellor suggested that I try meditating in my garden, but that didn’t soothe me either. On a particularly bad day, I shovelled up my frozen tulip bed. I laid the uprooted bulbs in a row. To a milky pulp, I smashed the sleeping embryos: parrot tulips, peony bloom tulips, frill tulips, red, yolk-yellow, and mauve tulips. My hands stung with frosted violence.
I knew it made no sense, no sense at all, but still, I blamed my mother for her bad genes. The guilt that followed allowed me to cry. My mother had died a year previously of breast cancer.
When I finally garnered the courage to face my reflection, I had to wear sunglasses, afraid that my barren upper ventral regions would burn my eyes like two brutal suns. I held a pair of tangelos before me and filled my bra cups with the fruit.
Mid-February, I was walking on the beach with my lover when my lips suddenly chapped and cinched. I pulled him close while I could, but my body was too slow for the speed of its loss. Each lipstick line cracked like a crushed walnut shell wrinkle. I gasped, in a parched terror, as my lips peeled off my face like ruffled flaps of cotton. We spent hours trying to find them in the shore’s gray pebbles.
Many other mouths had described my mouth as full. When I was physically whole, I had loved to eat plums, to press cool spoons to my Cupid’s bow, to lick milk froth from my bottom lip. To make my sister laugh, I would fold my upper lip against my gums, smile in a hard mode. I had loved to kiss. Oh, deeply, I had loved to kiss.
For the next two weeks, all I could stomach was beer, marijuana smoke, my sister’s pea soup, and chorizo burritos, which my lover delivered nightly. Gradually, I disregarded napkins and allowed the green drips, salsa, beans, and sausage bits to dribble beards down my chin; I burrito’d myself in bed like never before.
I’m here for you, we can work through this, my lover said, but he had become depressed in his anhedonia, too. His lips and cheeks sagged, his hazel eyes murked. Together, we smelled of decaying chipotle. Sebum. He began to dress in all black.
I stopped writing. My hands limped. I didn’t pick up my family’s or friends’ phone calls, but my sister left the most messages. I hope you’re taking care of yourself, she said.
Eventually, when the snow had melted to rain, I told my lover not to bother coming back. I supposed he had touched his limit. He didn’t come back.
I lost my ears and nose within the first week of March. My auricles dehydrated and granulated along their grooves like sand ripples. Then, they collapsed into my ear canals, diseased them like blighted potatoes and tubers. My nose pruned and began to pinch closed.
It was all a little too much. I was hospitalized. I had lost desire for sustenance, so I was tube-fed nutrient slime.
They flattened me in that archetypal bed, those white sheets, for what felt like months, but was only ten days. I grew lonely and dreamy with the past, with time’s uneven elasticity—how it affects the dormant body, all of its mental ache. Yet how, when our bodies are stuck, waiting, we can also be tricked into Cartesian dualism.
My sister was my one regular visitor. She gifted me a miniature potted succulent each day. Can you hear me? she would whisper to the side of my head where my ear used to be. Don’t worry, I’m taking care of your plants, she said. But they told me they miss you. Especially your ficus. I’m so afraid I’m killing it.
The nurses and doctors poked me like an undercooked daikon with their forked fingers and instruments. Does this hurt, they kept asking.
Voices blurred, became spectral. I made a move while I could still half-hear. A notepad and pen had been left on the bedside table, and I rolled over to pick it up. I don’t feel anything, I wrote shakily. I want to go home.
The medical professionals accepted that there was nothing they could do to improve my condition. There were no rational answers, and I was released.
My sister moved in with me. She was my trellis, though we both knew I wasn’t growing, at least not like that. She loofah’d me fresh each evening and morning with pine tar Castile soap: my favourite soap, even without smell. I spent many hours in the shower. Then, my sister kept my skin hydrated with neem oil, which she massaged into my head four times daily. She dropped me leaf-shaped notes of encouragement around the house, read me my favourite stories and poems. I read along as I read her lips.
My last personal hunger was for written words. Their vining lines, voluptuous curves. With my sister’s help, I dictated at least twenty pages of haikus:
light-handed you cleanse
my ribs bead with each sweet-
ness sun stipples walls
we harvest dew green
our veins full of each other’s
green blushed petals love
Your poetry has never been richer, my sister commented, ever supportive in her fear.
Before I started losing my body, I had neither understood intellectually nor fleshly the amount—the gravity—of myself that I could lose. Initially, following such concrete loss, I de-abstracted: thought and theorized less. But after the numb-headedness, I began to both feel and think more. I saw and knew every objective “of course” to the bottom of my psychosomatic parts still intact; we all lose, of course we all lose groundward, all the time. We pull our edges inward to make smaller and to heal closed each nicked bit of ourselves while we become smaller, too. It’s only organic.
I woke earlier than usual on March 20th, the vernal equinox, my birthday, to find that my fingers had furled against my palms like fiddleheads, like pre-ferns. My complexion had tinted tea green. I knew what was coming.
My sister was out for her morning hike. It was the right moment to go. I could neither say nor write a goodbye, so I felt it instead, and hoped that everyone I loved could feel my feeling. I had grown small, yes, but I mantra’d that in shrinking myself, I was expanding in my reach towards the surrounding world: up, down, down, up.
Barefoot, wearing my nightgown, I walked outside, into the backyard, and into my garden. It had been pouring all night. My body’s tiny hairs stood erect, correct, in the spring breeze. I stopped in the middle of the empty tulip garden. There, the pocks in the humus had puddled, wet. Soft.
I sunk into the dirt. Closed my eyes. Waited. But this time, tried to believe in something new.