A Tribute to Our Pañuelo Girl

by Tiffany Quay Tyson

I first met Christy Bailey at a weekend-long Lighthouse workshop in Fairplay, Colorado. We were two of a dozen or so writers working on book-length manuscripts. Christy was writing a memoir about living with alopecia areata. I was (as always) working on a novel. We sat next to each other during a workshop the first morning and immediately felt a connection. She was funny and sharp. She read a scene from her memoir-in-progress, Pañuelo Girl. Pañuelo is the Spanish word for the colorful headscarves she wore every day, her fashion-forward solution to living as a bald woman. No hiding under hot scratchy wigs in dated styles for Christy. She showed up in cool cotton scarves of bright green, orange, turquoise, aqua, and chic black when the occasion demanded it.

Christy told me most people assumed she had cancer. A woman stopped her in a store once to congratulate her on being a survivor. When Christy explained that she had alopecia areata, the woman accused her of impersonating a cancer victim. It was absurd and sad and funny all at once. Who did that woman think she was? But Christy had so many stories like that, and she told them with just the right mix of anger and compassion and humor. I understood the anger.

More than a year went by before I saw Christy again. We were at another Lighthouse event and I spotted her bright blue pañuelo from across the room. I waved and smiled and we made our way to one another. We chatted. She told me she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was ironic, she said, considering how often she'd had to correct people's assumptions that her baldness was a result of chemo and radiation. At least now no one could accuse her of impersonating a cancer survivor. She laughed about it. We both did, even though it wasn't funny.

After that meeting, we stayed in touch. She and another friend were pulling together a group of writers who would meet monthly to share work and talk about the writing life. Salon Denver, she called it. She invited me to come along. I did. Christy's cancer came along too. Christy was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), a particularly aggressive form of the disease. There's no lump, and mammograms often fail to diagnose IBC until it's too late. Christy went through a variety of invasive surgeries and painful treatments. Her doctors said she had a few months, then maybe a year.  On June 12, 2015, more than three years after her IBC diagnosis, and many years and months past her doctors' predictions, she died. But before that, she lived. She showed up at parties and workshops sporting colorful clothes and matching pañuelos. She made batches of her famous margaritas and hosted Cinco de Mayo parties. She traveled with friends. She wrote and shared her work with other writers.

And she had an impact on everyone she met. Here are a few memories and reflections from a small segment of her writing community:

From Susanna Donato:

I met Christy at Lighthouse, and ever after our first workshop together, it seemed like she pulsed at the heart of this writing community, because she was all about building and supporting strong communities. The last time I saw her was at Lit Fest, which seems so appropriate. Each time I step onto the Lighthouse porch, I'll imagine I see Christy's brilliantly colored pañuelo headscarves and her even more brilliant smile -- and hear her voice, with her words that cut to the core of any discussion and pierced others' hearts with the clarity of her own experience of life.

From Kelly Thompson:

At times, I'm a bit like a wounded doe at the edge of the forest, wary, ready to fight or flee in an instant. Christy reached out her writer hand to me and helped me walk a few more stumbling steps into unexpected love, community, and kindness. #gratitude

From Brian Sheehan:

When I first met Christy at a weekend long book-project retreat in November 2010, I knew I had met a special soul. Being in her presence brought out a disarming sense of honesty and transparency that has challenged my own writing as well as my own sense of being. Christy had a way of confronting her own truth that brought out the truth in others, and her brief presence in my life will have a lasting and powerful impact as long as I live and breathe. When Christy shared or read aloud the work of her writing it was like a beacon pointing to her own vulnerable truth and the light simply fell off and reflected in the waves of the lives of people who were fortunate enough to hear. She is missed and yet her truth remains the life of Christy Bailey. What a treasure of a soul, and my life is more gifted to have known her.

From Lia Woodall:

I'm not sure when I first met Christy Bailey, but I'd heard about her from our mutual friend, Robyn Richey Piz, for many months before our paths actually crossed. It would have been sometime in late spring 2011, I'm guessing. Robyn and I had taken many memoir workshops together at Lighthouse before then, but I was traveling a lot in 2010 and early 2011, back and forth to Arizona to help with my dad, and wasn't around when Christy broke through the front door and lit up the place. "I'm sure you've seen her around. You know, the girl with the scarf. You have to meet her," Robyn told me. The two of them ended up in Harrison's master memoir class and became steadfast confidants. They both were drafted for readings that I missed. I never took a writing class with Christy (with the short exception of last fall when she was briefly in the Book Project).

But Christy's voice is in my head. It's sharp, it's funny, it's observant, it winks at me. I first got to know her voice in August of 2011, when she and Robyn launched Salon Denver, a small group of writers from different genres that celebrates writing, the writing life, risk taking in writing, and new work. We met monthly in someone's home with a short time for socializing before getting down to the business of reading 1000 words or less without critique to a supportive and enthusiastic community. We practiced reading aloud, we took risks with experimental or new work, we learned each others' voices. And, especially for the memoirists, we got to know slices of each others' stories. These evenings were uplifting and intimate and brought meaning to our solitary writing practices. Friendships deepened. We got to know each other beyond words on a page. We said goodbye to some members because of travel or moving or life conflicts. We welcomed new members. In March of 2013, we said goodbye to Robyn who passed away from organ failure and complications from 2 kidney transplants. We held on to our other leader, Christy, that much harder as she was then deep into battling inflammatory breast cancer.

I really got to know Christy one night in Breckenridge in October of 2012 when I hosted a writing retreat for Salon members. Some members came and went during the week, but one night, mid-week, Christy and I were alone in the condo. First, we called Robyn, who'd been too sick to join us even for a night. She was happy at home with her doggies and had encouraging things to say to us about our writing. Then, Christy and I read to each other and brainstormed about how to fix problems in the arcs of our projects. We drank more wine and talked about what life had dished out. I listened carefully to Christy, to all of her voice, not just the one represented on the page. It was profound. It was ironic. It was still funny and wise. It deeply affected me. We became the kind of friends who could depend on each other. A couple weeks later she was diagnosed with IBC and a different kind of journey evolved for us.

Although Christy and I never really got to have the traditional Lighthouse workshop experience together, we shared the community, its readings, parties, visiting authors, LitFest and more. She loved Lighthouse and Mike and Andrea and the many teachers she got to work with and all the triumphs of so many friends. It was remarkable to see her there at the kickoff party to LitFest this year, energized by the community, saturated by so much love. Christy, I will miss walking into a room at Lighthouse and seeing your pañuelo, knowing you are there. But your voice is forever in my head.

On Saturday, July 11, 2015, from 1:00 to 4:00 PM, Christy's family, friends, and fellow writers will gather at Lighthouse Writers Workshop (1515 Race Street) to celebrate her life. Join us. Feel free to don a colorful pañuelo in her honor. Bring a story to share, or just come and be a part of the diverse, funny, fierce, and grief-stricken community of people bound together by their shared love and admiration of one amazing woman.

And please share your own reflections in the comments. We'd love to read them.