SINGAPORE - You can't imagine the nausea. Can't feel the fatigue. Can't touch the sores in the mouth. Can't experience the diarrhoea or constipation. Can't see what this drip of a chemotherapy drug does to the body. Except the hair. Always, in movies, in photographs, we see the hair gone. Falling in clumps from the head, vanishing from the eyebrows. It's as if cancer leaves you naked, stripping away so much of you. Even vanity.
And so, in an attempt at visible solidarity with cancer sufferers, people shave their heads. It is a bare statement to raise funds for necessary research. It is painless and symbolic, yet I have failed to do it myself, as if the superficiality of vanity and the real absence of courage are stilling me.
My grandfather fell to lung cancer, dying in slow, painful motion, and so, yes, like you probably, I know this disease. I also know Thomas Jefferson's words: "Do you want to know who you are? Don't ask. Act", and yet I don't act.
But Tara Tripathi Sarkar did. And it's why she's better than me.
In a friend's dimly lit study, Tara sits, one leg folded on the chair, arms semaphoring, two gold stars glinting in her ears, the room illuminated by her smile and the light reflected from a head with no hair. She's healthy, loves dogs, fitness and movies and didn't know what the word "vanity" means. She's also shaved her head, cried when her hair fell out, and has raised $4,055 so far through St Baldrick's Foundation.
Did I mention she's 13?
At 13, you're supposed to be unaware, Snapchatting after lights out and dreaming of Justin Bieber. You're not supposed to be capable of taking a leap over the chasm that separates intent from action. It is the most telling of human acts: to not merely be good, but in fact do good.
Let's be clear, this is no junior saint at work, no overdeveloped conscience in a precocious head, no child who read deeply on kids' cancers and felt compelled by a rush of empathy. Discovery of the self is far more complex, it is about the first, tiny steps a person takes beyond his own, safe world.
And so Tara stepped out. And on her own.
Parents everywhere push their children towards virtue. Help a neighbour. Support a cause. But there is a substantial and separate beauty to the act that originates from a young teenager's self, an idea to try something that is not coerced nor suggested by the parent. Where there is no adult hand to lead - in Tara's case her parents were supportive - but only a childish one that reaches out tremulously to experiment on its own.
Tara is hardly the only child of her age in this city to shave her head and only representative of a breed. She'd heard about heads shaved for a cause. A friend told her she was going to do it. And she discovered St Baldrick's Foundation, a charity that funds research for cures for childhood cancers and which has been supporting Duke-NUS' Paediatric Cancer Research in Singapore since 2011.
So she sat, was shorn, was scared a little (what will people say?), yet emerged as an adventurer who'd made an early exploration into the idea of compassion.
The shaved head, for some, is a defacing of the self and is an idea that can alarm parents. People will stare, they'll laugh, you'll be that most terrible of things - different. You'll stand out in a way we're not sure you're ready for. But perhaps we underestimate both the resilience of our children and their sensitivity.