All right. We’re just diving in.
I’ve been wondering how/if I was going to say this. And whether it mattered to anyone at all (besides me). And you know, when you come right down to it, it’s not like I tell you guys Everything. I keep a whole lot of the boring parts of my life to myself. Also some of the other parts. I do.
(So much for Diving In.)
Here’s the thing. I had this dumb little spot on my head, right inside my hair line over my right ear. It was scar-ish. Small-ish, pink-ish, and raised. A little. Nobody really had to see it, except when my hair was wet, which, honestly, happens every day, but usually in private moments.
One day this fall, I came downstairs in the morning with my hair wet, and Kid 2 said, “Ewww. What’s up with that thing on your head?” To which I responded, “None of your business. Eat your breakfast.” But then, of course, everyone wanted to see my little scar. Which, apparently was growing larger, as opposed to following the growing-smaller plan that I had for it.
I’m afraid this might be a long story, Feel free to skip to the end. Or grab a handful of pistachios. Or declaw the cat. Whatever.
When Husband took a good look at it, he said, “You’re calling somebody.”
I placated. “It’s nothing.”
His eyes widened as he poked at me. “Bec, it’s growing,” he said, in that voice that oozes menace. As though the little scar was going to take over my face or something.
“Yeah, okay. I’ll call.” Which, by the way, I did, after only a few days and some email-style prodding.
A few weeks later, I went to the dermy. Nice guy. Well, if you like your doctors efficient and businesslike, which I do. He said, oh, hey, we see things weirder than this every day. The sun probably just damaged your skin because you are old.* Let’s just scrape it off.
So I got biopsied. Cute Megan the nurse/assistant told me I’d feel a little prick (that was for the numbing shot). I squeezed my fingers together waiting for it. I think I might have even been holding my breath, waiting for that little prick, when Cute Megan said, Okay, all done. Keep this lubed with this greasy polysporin gunk. (Or she may have said something possibly slightly more science-y. You get the point.)
They shuffled me out the door saying yadda, yadda, thanks, we’ll call you if it’s anything, blah, blah, keep it moist, whatever.
A week later, I got the weirdest phone call. “Hi, Becca,” the nurse who was not Cute Megan said, “We just wanted to call you because we got your biopsy back, and it’s skin cancer.” She kept talking. I heard words, but they didn’t mean anything. It was one of those moments when the time continuum sort of opens up, and you think, right there in that space between syllables, “Huh. Cancer. That really, really stinks.” I felt hollow in my brain and in my guts. I let her calm voice and her words wash over me and I started hearing things like “a million people a year” and “really simple” and “not dangerous” and “Basal cell” and “carcinoma” and “removed” and I reminded myself to breathe.
Then I sat down on the floor and didn’t get up for a long time.
I have cancer. I have Cancer? Are you kidding me?
— and then, into my head:
remember the sunblock you don’t wear? you have no right, no right at all to mourn this news. you deserve this because you worship the sun. you are like the chain smoker who moans about lung cancer. you are the worst kind of lame. you may not feel sad, only guilty. and not only that, it isn’t even real cancer (that word again, oh, that word makes my guts sick) because you don’t have to have treatments. you just go in and they cut out the spot and they stitch you up and you drive yourself home and you go back in six months (forever) and over and over you face the full-body-scan humiliation and the doctor will keep taking spots off your skin and you will be grateful that it isn’t on the end of your nose. yet.
— and then:
not only that, but you really can’t play in the sun anymore. you can’t make it worse than it already is. who cares that you have stupid sensitive skin that reacts with welts and hives when you wear sunblock? nobody, that’s who. the tan portion of your life is over. learn to love white fat. yes, brown fat is prettier. deal with it.
— and then:
oh. cancer. that word is so big and powerful for a collection of just a few letters. none of the letters are even tall. but the word – it takes a bite out of your soul, doesn’t it? it makes you sink to the floor and stay there. it gives you visions of your very own body, the body you have never loved enough, fighting against itself for cellular domination. cancer is a word that brings its own bags and moves in and lives on your couch and never, ever goes away.
And then I held my knees and said, just in my head, “I have cancer.” After that, I tried it out loud. “I have cancer.” I said it three times. Each time, it pinched my mouth. It tasted like charcoal dust.
Then I breathed for a few minutes.
After that, I called Husband. And do you know what happened when I made that call? I turned into The Protector. Does this happen to you? I decided who absolutely had to know (only Husband at that point) and I told the story with as much cushioning as I could manage. It started with the demand that he not worry. Because this was not a big deal. I wonder now – did I mean that AT ALL? I echoed the nice nurse’s words about a million people a year, and basal cells, and ease. I mentioned the part about driving myself home (a big deal, because I had made an appointment for the next day, when Husband was locked into a film shoot that he couldn’t miss). I probed for fear, for concern, for worry, and I swept them all away with the power of my words.
But underneath, there was the other word. The heavy word. The one that tried to pull all my cushy comfort words down and drown them.
I decided to tell the parents. Again with the cushioning. Again with the careful protecting. Again with the making sure that they were all fine. And then I asked them for prayers. That this small thing not turn into a big thing. Which prayers they promised. And I felt.
And for the rest of the day, I sat. I thought. I allowed myself the day to mourn. To grieve. To let go forever the thought of my mortal immortality. To set aside my delusion of wholeness. I asked myself for forgiveness. Which is a whole different discussion.
The next day, I went and had the spot removed (which was weird, because after the biopsy, it was pretty much gone). My mama came with me. She held my eyes with hers so I could try to miss the scissors and the needles and the no-longer-white gauze that danced around my periphery. I asked a few questions. I laughed with the doctor (or maybe it was only me laughing) and with Cute Megan the nurse. I tried to pretend that I couldn’t hear the scissoring, but who was I kidding? There was that unfortunate knicking of the temporal artery and the subsequent mess. I walked out with a pressure bandage that stuck out of my head a whole inch, but could be covered by hair much thicker than mine. I carried on.
But inside, there was that word. Oh, that word. Cancer. It still sits there, heavy in my brain (metaphorically, okay? this is still about “just” basal cell carcinoma), and I carry it everywhere. There are days when the weight of that word makes writing hard. There are days when I want to say to all my demands, Hey, don’t you know that there’s cancer in here? But I can’t. Because, remember? It’s the “just” kind. The kind that isn’t dangerous. The kind that I brought on myself. The kind that is so much more an emotional cancer than a physical one. I think that is the final balance-tipping piece. I would allow myself to mourn more, to grieve more, if the physical were as big as it could be – if there was a treatment, or a medication, or a horrible chemo in my future. But since there’s not – just an occasional bald spot from lesion-removal (there’s that other word, that “just” again) – I feel like I’ve had my moment to mourn and now I have to get back in the saddle.
So for those of you who wondered about the sad things, this is one. It gets in the way, sometimes. But not every time. And carrying on is what we do. We who are strong and weak, and we who are whole and damaged, and we who are powerful and frail, and we who are fearless and daunted. We carry on.
We forgive and seek forgiveness.
We carry on.
And some of us seek to channel the power of other powerful words. The healing kind.
*I’m not old. I’m thirty-seven. And he is clearly older. Besides which, he didn’t say that Old part at all.