I’ve been naked in front of everyone in a lab coat from Layton, UT to South Jordan, and not only did no one tuck a dollar into the strings of my gown, they were so traumatized by the experience that they all sent me big bills to compensate for their pain and suffering. One day the plastic surgeon doing my reconstruction poked his head in and got a puzzled look on his face. “You look different,” he said. I was wearing clothes.
When I first learned I would need a double mastectomy, I had to transfer my care to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City because none of the other plastic surgeons would take my insurance, and I thought it wiser to work with a cohesive team, rather than disparate groups that didn’t talk to each other. The Huntsman was wonderful, by the way; I had excellent care! But when I went to meet with my new general surgeon, I was feeling a little grumbly about starting over, and when the good natured resident came in to get my history and hand me a gown, I pointed out that I’d like to meet the new guy as a person rather than a specimen. This is a serious conundrum in a hospital where doctors need track shoes to run from room to room, squeezing in all the possible sick and afflicted. That poor young doctor stood twisting in his skin, wanting to accommodate the patient, and wondering at the consequences of calling in the busy surgeon to talk, then making him cool his heels in the hallway while I changed. His smile remained sweetly fixed, but I could see this in his eyes and took pity, accepting the gown, and waiting for the surgeon without benefit of armor. They say clothes make the man; what did that make me?
A few years ago we were in Thailand riding elephants up a steep switchback trail in the mountains, and I was watching our little mahout who perched on the elephant’s bare neck, steering the great animal with nothing but his bare feet on its ears. Feeling all one with nature and human kindnessy, I glanced to my right at the big bull elephant above us on the switchback. “That poor thing, he’s got an extra leg just swinging free a few inches from the ground. Why don’t they–” . . . Oh—uh mm. There are just some things you can never unsee.
There’s a reason we talk about the birds and the bees, rather than the bull elephants and their lady friends, even though the elephants could provide a more obvious and clear demonstration of certain key facts, functioning as they do as the John Hancocks of the animal world, and providing a signature the king could assuredly read without his spectacles. Yet when we refer to procreation, we talk about tiny egg laying creatures, reinforcing the idea that it’s all too small to see, and we are closely aligned with hatching because sex is cool and happens to everyone except our parents, that would be gross. We are essentially putting clothes on the facts of life, adding some buttons and bling to make them fit into the world as we want to see it. That elephant, on the other hand, is loud and proud, nothing to prove, no need for clothes. I’m not there yet.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not proposing universal nudist colonies, but it might be a good moment to figure out how we define ourselves. Anthropologists talk about our tribes, the groups we connect with. Growing up my family was more artsy than sporty, but after my mother died, my dad married a nice woman with seven children who, oddly enough, were not exactly the same as we. My stepsister gave my dad a hat with some sports team or another, and heck if complete strangers didn’t give him a thumbs up or start a conversation. One older gentleman cornered him with all kinds of stats, memorized from time immemorial, even though my dad admitted halfway through that the hat had been a gift. Didn’t matter, he had the hat on his head and a connection was made.
Today tribes are often formed a little differently, looser, less face-to-face, less eye contact. At sixteen I was dewy and thin with proportionate, symmetrical features, so the camera loved me. I also had a wry sense of humor and knew how to type, so I would likely have connected very well had I been born into today’s two-dimensional social media landscape where the unappetizing bits can be edited, and identity is measured in likes and emojis. But in the three-dimensional world outside the camera, the view would have been a little different. No matter how fancy the camera, it would never see that I was considered a steady, levelheaded sort of girl, the type to be trusted with the hall pass, or the keys to your car. I was also born almost pathologically shy, the type to change aisles in the grocery store to avoid nodding hello to a perfectly nice acquaintance. Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, enticed the king of England away from his steady, levelheaded wife, ensnaring him so completely that he started a new religion in order to marry her, but she wouldn’t have done well on Instagram. As a kid I looked at her portrait and wondered if the artist wasn’t very talented, but even her good friend could only muster a “pretty enough” to describe her. It was Anne’s cosmopolitan confidence that got him, confidence and wit. Whatever her character flaws, she teaches us that beauty and identity can only be truly measured in 3D.
Socially I didn’t do well in high school. No one bullied me or tore me down, I did that all by myself, and I’m sure people could feel it off me, no matter how fashionable my outfit. Having grown up in a small town, I went to school with the same people for years, teaching them to expect shyness from me, and hating myself for it. These were not mean people, I think they would have accepted a more outgoing me, and I did try time and again, with fairly marginal results. My social deficits compounded with their expectations, and I generally walked away wishing I had been born mute. In college I was determined to reinvent myself, bursting on the scene in an Academy Award winning performance of Outgoing Girl, an act which I admit is still running today. I know it is a performance because the shy, awkward girl is still roaming the halls of my heart and mind, teaching me empathy, awareness, and tripping me up to keep me humble. She is a valuable part of my identity, but the camera cannot see her. The camera cannot see a lot of things.
A few years ago I had a very strange birthday party. I had been warned when I started the heavy double whammy chemo that I would probably lose my hair. The nurse told me to just shave it off, and be sure to go right to the scalp. I’d even bought a wig, cocooned in its tissue paper, and sitting in the bottom of the closet, but there was still a part of me that thought such a contraption could not possibly apply to me. I should interject here that it took me some years to become an organ donor on my driver’s license because a piece of me feared that the doctors would give up too soon and start distributing my organs before I was quite finished with them. I’ve since overcome this irrational fear, but given such a history it should be no surprise I secretly worried that chemo patients were being given bum advice. What if some alarmist nurse started passing out the clippers too soon, and there you are, bald for no reason.
The hair was okay at first, no big deal, it became a little brittle to the touch, and stopped growing, but the day after my first treatment I showered and went for the blow dryer, curling iron, and makeup, everything normal, not feeling really great, but I would carry on and let the poison work its way out of my system. Days passed, another treatment, and there was an awful quantity of hairs on my pillow and down my sweater. Soon it was clear I was not the one in a million who would keep her hair, and something would have to be done, but what? I couldn’t go to a salon because I would have sat there in public with tears rolling down my cheeks, my emotions heightened by my fear of losing control before strangers. But I couldn’t bear to do it in private either. Something about hiding away made it all seem more frightening and pathetic. It turns out chemo shaving is a very personal thing, like how you prefer your eggs, and I was twisting myself in knots until I realized I had to take ownership. For me it had to be a head shaving party.
The Saturday after my birthday I invited my family and close friends. We had plenty of food and cake, and anyone who wished could take pictures, provided none made their way onto social media, I wasn’t ready for that. At my youngest sister’s house, I sat on the old piano bench in front of the piano she had inherited when my mother passed away, around which our mom, my five sisters, and I had spent innumerable hours singing, sometimes sweetly, and sometimes like a pack of howling dogs. I didn’t pick the piano bench for sentimental reasons, but because it was the only seat left, and the wood could be easily wiped down.
My sister, Natalie, started with the scissors, clumps of brittle hair sliding to the floor. My family was trying so hard to be sensitive to me, gauging the necessary solemnity, until a joke popped unbidden from one set of lips, and then another; pretty soon we were all laughing. I knew that would happen, in fact I’d counted on it. I offered my kids a chance to snip. Porter agreed right away, then Abby said she would do it. Chase held back, uncertainty in his eyes. “Are you sure?” I asked. “When will you ever get another chance to cut your mother’s hair?” He took a turn too, and soon I had an asymmetrical do they said looked like a rock star–that would be a punk rock star who was 50 years old and conservatively dressed (insert bewildered emoji here).
Natalie finished with the scissors and started with the clippers. “Go right to the skin,” I said, and she got as close as she could. While she swept up the hair, I wrapped a red silk scarf around my head, and everyone told me I looked beautiful. Later the mirror told me it wasn’t really true, but it made me feel good to hear them say it. After that most people drifted out, and a few of us watched The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with Don Knotts, which I totally recommend, if you haven’t seen it.
About now you’re thinking I distrusted people because I thought they were lying to me. Nothing could be further from reality. They showed me kindness and love at a vulnerable moment because they looked beyond the mirror. They saw me in 3D, and that made all the difference.
Cancer did me no favors. Six months or so after my head shaving party, I had a major league surgery that started before daybreak and ended at bedtime, involving three separate surgical specialties. The day after I was finally released from the hospital I awoke in the roaring pain you can expect after twelve or fourteen hours of surgery, but I was home and determined to handle it by alternating Tylenol and ibuprofen because I have a terror of addiction, and wanted to engage with my life rather than float past it. This was a serious challenge for me, but I took pride in the effort, and felt confident I could succeed. That confidence gave me power.
I will draw the curtain over what happened next. Suffice to say an unfortunate incident and terrible rejection brought me into brutal confrontation with my own repulsiveness, proclaiming my value to be nothing but fool’s gold.
The camera used to love me, but it’s less enamored now. That day I sat in the den bald, pale, and tired; three weeks past chemo; missing my eyebrows and eyelashes; my fingernails mostly detached, thick and twisted into witch’s claws; with four drains hanging out of my chest, dangling their gruesome contents from a lanyard around my neck. I would not have done well on Instagram.
The pain of that moment surpassed anything a surgeon could do with his knife. Determined to follow through, I went on alternating Tylenol and ibuprofen, but I couldn’t rest and didn’t sleep that night. By my doctor’s appointment the next morning I was so stiff and hurting I could barely walk, and they insisted I take heavier painkillers because I wouldn’t heal if I couldn’t relax. I’d lost the confidence of the previous morning, and I guess I needed to float for awhile.
Everyone wants to be wanted, from the time we’re born until the day we die, we all have this human need, but there are those who take it to the next level. Lots of these people hang out in gyms and declare themselves addicted to healthy living. Of course, exercise and a healthy diet are wonderful habits, but some of those hard-core addicts are not so much motivated by health as by the need to be Desired. We see it all the time in cheaters. Their vision deteriorates to two dimensions, until they see the mirror and nothing more. For many the deterioration even falls below two dimensions, distorting their reflections and causing them to blame their spouse for their adultery, genuinely believing it to be true. There is great danger in trusting your identity to another person’s eyes. One day and one decision at a time, a person can take on the two-dimensional eyes of the camera, but the love of a camera is merely a figure of speech.
People motivated by the need to be Desired can run crazy in China where cheating is an integral part of government, business, schools, and the family. I love mainland China and Chinese people, and I don’t imply that every person is dishonest, but mainlanders themselves will tell you to be wary. A Chinese friend married to an American husband commented that China is not safe for western men. She’s right, every day for five years I watched as women flocked around them, offering fantasy in exchange for bettering their circumstances, desire destroying many families.
No culture is really immune. Hollywood, advertisers, fashion, social media, and porn are seeping into every corner of our lives, infecting our desires with a constant barrage of fairy glamour, editing, and trickery, which makes it very confusing when we try to identify ourselves or define what is or is not beautiful. For a time cancer endowed me with all the earmarks of the fairy tale hag, and I had to make peace with walking in that set of shoes. Today my appearance is much improved, but it has taken significantly longer than expected. For a year and a half I ran around inside out, and by that I mean one breast in and one breast out. During radiation the doctor decided that one breast was obstructing the shot, so, what with being totally adjustable and all, they drained off one side of the expander implant I’d spent weeks getting filled in preparation for reconstruction. Over a year and a half of surgeries and complications mean I’m Frankenstein under my clothes, and I’ve, uh, “changed profiles” several times, but as of March of last year I am finally free. My hair and eyelashes have come back, but not like before. It took two years to get to my first haircut after that head shaving party on the piano bench. It was also two years for my toenails to recover. As a birthday present I treated myself to my first pedicure since chemo, and I sat in the chair looking all bland and normal, but inside I wanted to cry from sheer, joyous relief. A pedicure and a haircut are such minor things, yet for me they were milestones, battles won, and ground reclaimed.
If a camera could tell my life story, it would report that sometimes I was pretty and sometimes I was ugly, after that the information trails and fizzles. Tragically, there are people in our lives looking at us with that camera’s two-dimensional eyes, which means there is the possibility that someone could discard us like a used tissue, and even act like we deserved it. But I have to know, if I am discarded like a used tissue, does it follow that am I a used tissue? I suspect I am not alone in my question. Is it possible there are, right at this moment, human souls asking this very question in every language on earth? Wouldn’t that be a tribe of millions? Yet many wander around in isolation, unwilling or unable to sift through the river of pain and shame thundering in our ears and tearing us to pieces, or causing us to turn on ourselves. How do we escape such a trap, and how could we possibly connect with such a massive tribe? I don’t actually know, but I would guess the first step is accepting our own warts, and then accepting someone else’s. That’s a tribe of two, then three, then four . . .
At the beginning I asked another old question, “If the clothes make the man, what does that make me?” I’ve decided it’s ridiculous to wonder because it takes what I want to project and sticks it in a blender with what other people want to see, and it’s time for me to stop giving away that much power. I’ll tell you what I do know. I know what it means to be repeatedly stripped naked in front of people in lab coats, scarred and bald with nothing to offer but my heart and my wits. It took time, but eventually I figured out it’s not that bad. I know what I am.
I am enough, and so are you.
I do not mourn the loss of the sixteen-year-old girl that enticed the camera, because I hope I am so much more. I don’t know exactly all I am, but I know very clearly who I want to be, and I work at it every day. I do not believe our salvation lies in seeking justice or revenge on those who’s diminished vision has torn away a chunk or two. I have learned that forgiveness is more than an absence of anger. True forgiveness means we see things as they are, and we choose to have charity anyway. Why are we here on earth if not to expand our vision of each human soul? If we could train our eyes to see as God sees, there is no person on earth we would not love more, including ourselves. In touching the divine, we discover who we really are.
I honestly have no idea what you might see if you look at me. I don’t know what my doctors see when I open my gown and let them poke my Frankenstein body. The mirror tells me nothing because each individual person looks at my earrings and lipstick and overlays his or her personal set of perceptions. But I keep thinking about that elephant in Thailand, powering up the mountain with a heavy burden, accepting of the embarrassing bits, intelligent in himself, but obedient to the humble little mahout with bare feet who was keeping him safe and showing him the way. No shame, no fear. I have much to learn from the elephant.