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Dolls and Cancer: A Christmas Reverie


When my mother was given a teddy bear after her mastectomy, I was mystified. How could hugging a teddy bear help? When people started giving me doll figurines after my cancer diagnosis, I started to understand. Hope begins not just with medical intervention but also with the power of the imagination.

It is almost Christmas, and I have gathered the dolls. No, not my Barbie dolls with their home-made dresses and straight-pin earrings, shoes drawn on if they wear shoes at all. These are in a trunk. The oldest Barbie there Santa brought in 1962. Her twin, looking the same as she did in 1964, rests with kin too, toys who used to make me make up stories as I made up my life as I went along. Asleep like fairytale figurines, these dolls are waiting for another child to claim them. 

Even as an adult, though, I wake these dolls up now and then. Barbie II ventured out for a field trip to a women’s studies class in 1989, her dress ballooning over a Play-doh belly. “Meet Pregnant Barbie,” I said to the class. A conversation started. You know, Barbie’s pre-pregnancy controversial figure was never a bad influence on me. Look at me now, living proof that Barbie does not always make a little girl want to grow up and look like her. Another time, Barbie participated in a photo opportunity showcasing handstitched dresses. 

Still, the Mattel family is not coming out for Christmas this year. I am gathering other dolls, dolls people thought I, a grown woman, needed when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. These dolls tiptoe around the house, living in one nook or another cranny as I wonder if I should just put them away. I always change my mind and move them around again. Close by in a bureau with sweaters or in a cabinet next to canned collards, they are not waiting for children to break a spell. 

Willow Tree, for example, spent all summer in a grove of oregano, her arms aloft with blue birds. I found her there today. She did not shiver in the freezing cold as I brought her indoors to watch me write. We are looking at each other now. Willow’s face is a blank slate onto which I can paint a smile: her smile, mine. 

Willow has shoulder-length hair like Francie, Barbie’s cousin. Barbie’s little sister, Skipper, had long hair before I did. I wore my hair like Francie until I told Mama I wanted to let it grow. My hair grew longer than Skipper’s in my teenage years. Teenagers put dolls away, even dolls rescued from trash piles the way I rescued Skipper’s friend Scooter from somebody who threw her out in 1969 when she outgrew dolls before I did. Barbie dolls do not age. Thinking of them at this moment, though, I wonder how they would handle cancer. 

I bet Skipper would be worried if Barbie came home with cancer. She would hold her hand at chemo and see Barbie with a beautiful silk scarf crafted from one of mine cut up for headcover and matching blouse. Cool! As Barbie’s breasts are not easily removed, I could pretend, cancer in one or both one minute and cancer gone the next. Why not? Barbie II, who went to graduate school, found a cure. Cool! My dolls taught me they could do anything I could pretend they could. In their world, a doll could shape-shift as the narrative shifted, magically, the way the mind plays with the imagination. 

Unlike breasts, doll heads, where there is no brain other than my own, are easy to detach. “Give me back my head!” I used to cry, chasing my brothers, before I knew what chemo brain felt like. “Give me back my head!” I could have cried to my oncologist. I did not. It came back of its own accord as I waved goodbye to innocence and stared into the face of Hope, Willow’s sister, who cocks her head, contemplative. 

Hope is younger than I am, with auburn hair and eyebrows that look like mine did before chemo. Hope could be my daughter or my friend. Comfortable in her own body, she wears a paisley skirt that lifts in an eternal breeze. I need to mention that she has paisley wings, too. These wings broke off the month Hope lived above my kitchen sink on a windowsill that is easy to fall off of. 

I am 60 years old. Why did people think I needed dolls when I simply needed to survive cancer? That day Hope fell into the sink I stared at her, wondering if she would prefer to climb out and stand there holding her pink ribbon tight against her chest without angel wings to balance her sorrow. I played with her: wings on, wings off. Did Hope need wings? Was she, broken, less complete? I glued the wings back on. 

The tallest of these dolls celebrating Christmas with me arrived first, a gift from somebody who lost her twin sister to breast cancer. It was 2010. I accepted the doll with grace, naming this one after me. Felicia looks as if she is always stepping back inside her house after picking a bouquet of pink flowers under a summer sun. “Faith, family, friends!” Felicia exclaims, and exclaims again, wet grass still clinging to the edge of her skirt.

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