How Lipstick is Saving My Life

“She wants her lipstick,” my mother groaned, passing on the demands of the woman strapped to the stretcher. An ambulance was in front of our house. Minutes before, I walked into grandmama’s bedroom and saw her body frozen still—her eyes fluttering.

Mom and I watched helplessly as the paramedics wheeled her out. As the men crossed the threshold, my 89-year-old grandmother, who was non-responsive minutes earlier, gripped the door frame and forced the paramedics to stop. All the power of her personality was in her hands.

Gladys wanted her brush and Fashion Fair lipstick.

Why should tonight be any different? Grandmama did not leave the house without her face on. Her look was simple. She brushed her silver wavy hair back from her bare butter pecan skin—her large brown eyes were sympathetic saucers or ray beams depending on her mood—and then painted her lips ruby red with Fashion Fair lipstick. She was a retired schoolteacher—as hard as she was charming—who practiced the discipline that she instilled in her students. So it came as no surprise when my mom came home from the nursing home to say that she walked in on attendants brushing her hair.

I ran from all things red and floral. For years, I diagnosed my grandmother’s demands as delirium (and vanity) until my diagnosis of a brain tumor years after she died. I didn’t need to tell the world how I felt. The dark circles under my eyes broadcast the story as my illness stretched into a decades-long battle. Something unholy had come upon me, stealing my walk, my words and my ways, leaving a zombie in my place.

When I felt confident, I had an audacious attitude toward the beast in my brain. Vanity could not take credit for my metamorphosis. Many studies state the obvious: looking good helps us feel good. In fact, as many as 83% of women facing cancer saw benefit from programs like “Look Good… Feel Better.” according to a Harris Interactive survey. I knew the stats.

In the lobby of the radiation oncology center, brochures on maintaining your appearance shared top billing with literature on sleep and medicine. Thoughts of nails and hair seemed frivolous when the act of getting out of my bed was enough to make me crawl back into it. There was also the pile of medical bills standing between my self-care, which could affirm my humanity, and me. How could I fight for the health of someone I don’t recognize in the mirror?

So I bought some Fashion Fair lipstick.

The tube was an old friend in my hand. Fashion Fair was the first brand grandmama bought just for me. I was just shy of my teenage years when Gladys noticed that my body, and I, was changing when I arrived for a summer visit. Grandmama marched me to the back of Bright’s department store where she poked and stuffed me into one training bra after the next. As my reward, she guided me to the makeup counter, which was full of pastel and glass bottles, boxes, and tubes, and swished Fashion Fair’s plum blush on my toasted caramel cheeks. I was a young woman. As I pulled bright red cream across my lips, it awakened these memories. I was not a zombie today and this was an affordable balm.

Lipstick can’t cure the pain or high medical bills, but it does something miraculous for the soul. When my dandelion mane mats from neglect, I can brighten my face and outlook with a swipe of a lipstick. With my red lips come bold affirmations telling the world and myself “I am still here.” Maybe grandmother demanded her lipstick because, even strapped to her stretcher, she was still a woman, delirious or not. The woman I see looking back at me in the mirror is a woman still alive, even when she doesn’t feel like it, because zombies don’t wear red lipstick.