The Slice of the Knife
Every story has to start somewhere. I will start this one in the middle.
The face staring back at me is mine. I know it intimately, especially since I am very nearsighted and, when not wearing contacts, have to squint at the mirror from about a foot away. Today I am focused on my rather aquiline nose. Large noses are a family trait from both sides. In high school, my mother once referred to my nose as ‘noble’ - as in Greek goddess - to make me feel better. At this moment, I would give anything to only worry about a largish nose.
Tomorrow I am traveling to El Paso, Texas, for a skin cancer surgery that should have happened six years ago. The tale of not one, not two, but FOUR dermatologists missing skin cancer in the middle of my face is a sad one, one that has its chapter in a book I may one day write. The point is, I know it’s bad. The 5th dermatologist, tomorrow's surgeon, knows it’s bad. When your doctor personifies cancer as “angry and aggressive,” you must understand IT - IS - BAD.
I tip the scales pretty heavily on the vanity side. I blame my parents for this. Even to this day, my dad's greeting is “Hello, beautiful!” I have inherited thick, wavy, auburn hair and pale Irish skin from my mother. For most of my life, I have had a shape that allows me to wear almost anything I want, and I still slip into a bathing suit with some level of confidence. Suffice to say, my physical appearance has been something I can go to for a confidence boost, as superficial as I know that sounds.
Tomorrow? Tomorrow I have no idea how much of my face will be sliced off, dug out, rearranged. Will I need a skin graft? The skin texture and pore structure on your face are unique. I have heard stories of people having a balloon inserted under the skin of their forehead and slowly inflated over time, so the skin expands. When harvested ( what a word to use when speaking about the human body! ) it is used to patch up holes or reconstruct your face. Nice! Except for the - walking around for weeks with an expanding balloon growing in the middle of your forehead - bit.
I stand in front of the mirror with a level of fear I have never felt before. The sharp twisting in my gut makes it hard to breathe and even harder to think. My brain wants to run away, search for an alternative ending, anything to avoid laying there and having a scalpel cut into my face. Tomorrow morning I will get up, brush my teeth, get in the car, make the two-hour drive, walk into the office, and wait in the lobby for my name to be called. Tomorrow I will pretend everything is normal, right up to the point I am ushered into the brightly lit room with the little paper gown. Then it will become a horror movie with an unknown ending.
There are times in life when things are black and white. I know without this surgery, the skin cancer that began six years ago as just a tiny blemish on the side of my nose will continue to grow. It will spread across my left cheek and work its way down through the layers, eventually eating away the bone structure of my face. Talk about vanity! What will I look like in ten years? No, despite the fear, this is an easy call.
I straighten my back, put my hands on my hips and say to the mirror - to myself. This thing will eventually kill you. Your choice is to deal with it now or deal with it later. If you don’t want to die, you have to deal with it. What are you waiting for?
Hearing these words come out of my mouth, go into my ears and settle into my heart calms me. I begin to own the decision that was made. It wasn’t the doctor's decision. It was my decision. I am doing what needs to be done, what MUST be done. While the fear is still there, the paralyzing aspect lessens, and I feel a sense of peace for the first time in weeks.
Fast forward two days later. The surgery has been successful. If you can call success, having a hole cut into your face the size and depth of a nickel. Clear down to the bone. Yep, I made the mistake of looking. The surgeon was so proud of his work, “Wanna see?” he said. I didn’t - but I did - to not hurt his feelings. That was about the time my husband headed for the door, a terrible shade of green. I didn’t blame him one bit.
Lucky for me, I have the DNA for pliant, stretchy skin, and the surgeon is incredibly skilled. There are sixteen stitches on the outside of my face and at least that many beneath the surface. I know, I counted them. There wasn’t much else to do while lying there. The tiny needle and thread kept swooping into my line of sight, then back up out of it, like a barn swallow searching for bugs. My eyes are black and blue. My entire face is swollen, but my nose still looks like a nose. It still looks like MY nose, which brings immense comfort.
Back home, my husband brings me something to eat while I languish in bed, praying for the pain meds to kick in after foolishly bending down to pick something off the floor, something the doctor told me explicitly not to do. My husband is so kind and thoughtful, especially when meeting my physical needs. As he sits there on the side of the bed, smoothing the hair from my brow, I remember my hands on the hip moment. The one where I declared the truth out loud so my ears would have to hear it, so my heart could lay claim to it.
This thing is eventually going to kill you. Your choice is to deal with it now or deal with it later. If you don’t want to die, you have to deal with it. What are you waiting for?
There is something else that will eventually kill me, and if I don’t want to die, at least spiritually, I have to deal with it. This thing is my marriage.
The current state of my marriage, in many ways, is a mirror of my skin cancer journey. I say, “There is something wrong here.”, but people keep telling me everything is fine. A series of therapists tell me I feel things too deeply. I need to be less emotional. My friends tell me they would love to have a husband half as kind, thoughtful, or hardworking as mine. In fact, who am I to complain? Do I know how good I have it? I can hear their voices in my head still. I had endured decades self-doubt, letting the certainty of others drown out the cry from my heart.
I am more and more frustrated that no one, especially my husband, listens to me. I have so much self-doubt. Maybe I am too sensitive? Maybe I am too much work? Maybe it is just mental illness? It must be me, right? Maybe my unhappy marriage, like my skin cancer, looks like no big deal on the surface, so nobody but me is aware of how bad it really is? All I know is, I had been fighting a losing battle - for my voice, autonomy, and sense of self.
That day, sitting in bed with those 38 plus stitches and my face swathed in bandages, I tell my husband I am leaving. Maybe not forever, but I need to figure out who I am and what I need. When I say the words, I experience the same peace that had come over me when I realized the skin cancer surgery was MY choice and I would live with the outcome, no matter what it was.
The reasons I had not left before were many, but most of them had to do with fear. The unknown is often the greatest fear of all. What if I am making a terrible mistake? How am I going to support myself? What will my family and friends say? Will God turn away from me, deny me love and acceptance? Also, I really love the guy; we have spent 30 years of our lives together.
My face heals. I pack my bags. I leave, travel back roads, experience new things, meet interesting people, soak pillows with oceans of tears, and fill journals with miles of words. When I confront a truth I find to be false, I try to be matter-a-fact, not assign blame. After all, at any point along those six years of dermatologist appointments, I could have said, “I want you to biopsy this. I know you don’t think it is cancer but humor me.” I take ownership for my part in the unhealthy state of my marriage. I finally understand my unhappiness as something to be changed, not someone who needs to change.
We separated for nine months, nine horrible, beautiful, grief-stricken, joy-filled, heart-wrenching months. I learn so many about myself, and gain valuable insight into my husband’s heart and mind. The ability to deconstruct and rewrite the narrative of my life is a gift I never imagined was possible. It has been one of the most challenging, painful, and ultimately rewarding chapters of my life.
Since then, I have had another skin cancer surgery and will likely have more. It would be untrue to say there wasn’t fear the second time around, but a funny thing happened. My first surgery had left my nose slightly asymmetrical; during the second surgery, the doctor corrected this. I actually look better after being sliced on twice! It is another reminder that the unknown does not need to be feared.
When I stand in front of the mirror and see those silvery scars crisscrossing my otherwise “noble” nose, I am grateful. In facing my fear of the unknown in the physical realm, God allowed me to finally face the emotional fear holding me hostage for most of my adult life. I never want to go through an experience like that ever again, but if I have to, I will do so with the confidence that fear will never again define my life.
PS. This is the 3rd anniversary of my first skin cancer surgery and it feels like a life-time ago. Sharing such a personal story always has me wondering, "Is this of general interest? Is this waaaaay too much information for people to read on a blog?" Then I remember, this is my story and my blog. If it wasn't interesting to me I wouldn't write it or post it. Also, people pull things I have never imagined out of my writings. Just being ME is the very best I have to offer the world, and this skin cancer journey of mine has definitely be a stepping stone into living my best life.
PPS. Michael Neal Hutchins kisses my nose, silver scars and all, on a regular basis. As he declares "I LOVE YOU", I finally understand his love has absolutely nothing to do with what I look like.