Diving In: What An Afternoon of Swimming Taught Me

To wear, or not wear, the bathing cap.

This was my dilemma one late summer afternoon in 2013. I was 45, a recent “graduate” of surgery plus chemo for breast cancer, and I was enjoying a brief hiatus before daily radiation treatments started up in October. My sons, ages six and eight then, were with me in the locker room of our local YMCA in Woburn, Massachusetts, as I debated whether or not to wear a hot pink bathing cap.

>>This blog was previously published on TheMighty.com. 

It was my children who wanted to swim that day, not me. When they’d asked me about it that morning, I’d lied and said I had to work. I was a freelance writer then, but business was slow. The truth was I didn’t want anyone to see me bald.

“Please mama,” Jonas, my seven year old begged as he shimmied onto my lap. “Can we swim?”

It had been a tough six months for them, too. “OK,” I said.

My husband watched the kids as I ran to a local sporting goods store for a bathing cap. I hadn’t worn one since I was a kid at Camp Monroe in Orange Country New York back in the eighties, and the choices overwhelmed me:  should I go with simple white? Or the more fun cupcake one? The American flag was too patriotic. After several wasted minutes that I’ll never get back, I grabbed a hot pink cap and called it a day.

“Why not just swim without one?” a friend asked when she called later that morning. I explained that I wasn’t comfortable flaunting my baldness. Self-consciousness, specifically around my hair, came to call around age 12, and it’s never left. Back then, it was all about having the perfect feathered bangs, like Charlie’s Angels’ Farah Fawcett.

I’d had a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with my hair for decades--always wishing I could trade my coarse wavy mane for smooth, shiny and straight. Combine that with my aversion to risk taking (simply stepping into an elevator or a revolving door is angst-ridden enough for me) and you’d never find me skydiving or bungee jumping like my cousins who inherited some crazy daredevil gene I did not.

Out of everything during treatment, chemotherapy scared me the most, but not because I’d lose my hair. I was terrified of feeling sick, of vomiting, of all the unknowns. As for my locks, I scoffed when someone suggested I could keep them by freezing my scalp after each chemo session with what she called a “cold cap.” It sounded unpleasant. And cold.

After the hair was gone, I immediately hid my naked noggin under a fabulous auburn wig that a friend bought for me. I also purchased several hats and various coverings, what my mother would have called “schmattas,” the Yiddish word for rags. She never saw my schmattas, however, as she died of ovarian cancer in 2002, at age 69. Like me, she wore a stylish wig much of the time. I never saw her bald.

Unfortunately, when I first tried to slip the pink bathing cap on my head in the Y locker room, it was like trying to stuff a grapefruit into one of my kids’ socks.

“I don’t think I can wear it,” I said to the boys. “It’s too tight.” 

“But you have to wear it,” Jonas said.

“Why?”

“Because people will think you’re weird,” he said. 

“Yeah mom,” my older son chimed in. “You should wear it.”

That’s when I recalled the bald woman I’d made eye contact with in the grocery store that week. I stared at this woman, hoping she would notice me--hoping she would see that we were “one”, she and I, under my schmatta. When our eyes finally met, I smiled. She, however, did not. I’d been judged.

And so it was her disapproving face, I believe, that pushed me over the edge that day at the Y. I would show her…and my kids…and my crippling self-conscious self…that I could do this thing. That after all I’d been through already--the blood draws, the biopsies, the surgery, the chemo--I could get in a pool bald and survive.

So instead of packing up and heading for the parking lot, I chucked the bathing cap back in my locker and confidently said, “Let’s go swimming guys!”  

“Really?” Ethan said looking at my head. “Like that?” 

I nodded. 

“Ok” he said and shrugged.

“Ok,” Jonas agreed.

In the pool, my boys played as though nothing was usual. Strangers looked at me: not all, but some. A little girl floating by on a couple of noodles stared in the obvious way kids do. I smiled and she turned away, then turned back once more just to make sure I was still bald. I saw the curly-haired, young lifeguard who had taught my kids to swim. We made eye contact and he smiled politely. There were others who looked, but no one pointed, or laughed, or said anything. 

Swimming bald, I discovered, was no big deal. Rather, it was just one more reminder that scary things in life often don’t turn out as bad as we think they will.

Scary things in life often don’t turn out as bad as we think they will.

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Swimming bald made me feel bold. Sure, it was nothing compared to jumping out of an airplane. But like the silky pool water as it lapped against my smooth, naked head, damn it felt good.


amy yelin.jpg
Amy Yelin’s writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Globe Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, Literary Mama, Brainchild, The Manifest-Station, The Gettysburg Review and other publications. She received a Pushcart nomination for “The Memoirist” (Lunch Ticket) and a Best American Essays notable recognition for “Torn,” (The Baltimore Review). Her awards include scholarships to the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony and the Prague Summer Program, as well as a full fellowship from the Sustainable Arts Foundation for two weeks at the Vermont Studio Center. She has an MFA from Lesley University, teaches writing classes at Grub Street in Boston, and is the former managing editor of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices. Connect with Amy on Facebook.
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Amy Yelin

Amy Yelin’s writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Globe Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, Literary Mama, Brainchild, The Manifest-Station, The Gettysburg Review and other publications. She received a Pushcart nomination for “The Memoirist” (Lunch Ticket) and a Best American Essays notable recognition for “Torn,” (The Baltimore Review). Her awards include scholarships to the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony and the Prague Summer Program, as well as a full fellowship from the Sustainable Arts Foundation for two weeks at the Vermont Studio Center to work on her memoir-in-progress, “A Stranger There.” She has an MFA from Lesley University, teaches writing classes at Grub Street in Boston and is the former managing editor of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.