Skeletons and Scars

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I’m watching Jason and the Argonauts. Have you ever seen it? The scene I’m watching now is the skeletons fighting Jason, at the end, after he’s captured the Golden Fleece. He’s CAPTURED the Golden Fleece! He should be home free, right? Wrong. This is the part Joseph Campbell calls “The Flight.” Watching the skeletons rise out of the ground from the Hydra’s teeth, accompanied by creepy dark music, my stomach churns. Even though I know they’re fake, even though I know it’s just cheesy 1960s stop-motion animation, these skeletons are freaking scary. They seem cold, calculating, then vengeful and snarling. Their expressions, like Hugo Weaving’s Guy Fawkes mask in V for Vendetta, never change, yet I find myself imbuing them with sneaky, vicious malice.

I wonder what I am doing, imagining a career as a breast cancer survivor. Reviving the skeleton again and again. Inviting it back in. Why would I do this – turn myself into Ron Kovic? Am I trying to overcome breast cancer, to make my peace with it, to profit from it somehow, to make it all worth it? I tell myself, if I hadn’t gotten breast cancer.… and go blank. There is no benefit right now. I am not (yet, I hope) at that place where I am thankful for it. It’s out there, I know – that other side – but how and when will I get there? Paddle, paddle, paddle. I’m still swimming.

The only place I feel comfortable talking about my disease is among other survivors… they’re the only ones who get it, who I can talk to without feeling like a freakshow. My port’s bothering me. Oh, your port? Mine too. Say that to someone who has never had chemo and they look at you like an alien. Your port? What the fuck, your port?! Yeah, the plastic port, surgically implanted in my chest. The one I can’t afford to remove because I have a $26,000 insurance deductible. The port that I can feel under my the skin just above my heart, the one that makes me dread letting a man touch my chest, for fear it will totally gross him out.

Last night, I sat in a room of models getting ready for a fashion show – at a BREAST CANCER FUNDRAISER – and felt utterly self-conscious of my scarred-up abdomen, my imperfect breasts, my chemo hair, my aching feet. I watched the friend who came with me make a wig out of a pink boa, a kerchief, and a stapler, while a young, thin blonde was having her hair curled and sprayed to Fem-Bot perfection. The models were lovely and sweet, but it was surreal; I felt like a Saint Bernard at a Pomeranian convention.

Why would I subject myself to this feeling, of being utterly disconnected from everyone around me, over and over, for a living? Why would I want to face down this skeleton in my closet time and again, to make friends with it, to bring it onstage with me and wave to it in the crowd? A survivor told me yesterday that because she tested positive for the BRCA-1 gene, her healthy sister got tested for it and, when she was positive too, immediately had a prophylactic double mastectomy. I started to cry, not wanting to imagine the possibility of my sister having to go through what I’ve been through. Seeing the skeletons on the screen rise up from their hydra teeth, I immediately remembered the conversation. Death coming back for me, coming for the people I love. Should I get tested? Why? So I can make this fight that much harder?

I was in the car with my father once, on the way to church, listening to the Forrest Gump soundtrack, and California Dreamin’ came on. He suddenly burst into tears, scaring the shit out of me. Drying his eyes, he said, “I’m sorry. When I was in Vietnam, there was a kid with us who used to sing this song over and over. All he wanted was to go back home. He never made it; he died before we came back.” This pain, of surviving something horrible and terrible, and being grateful to be alive and sad that not everyone got to live, had been in my father’s heart for almost thirty years. He never talked about it, not even after that morning. I wonder if I could have related to him now, even though my fight is different. We forget this is a disease that kills people, and when we remember, it reminds us how close we came. Why do we cry? For not being the ones that don’t make it? Or for having had to fight at all?

How does Jason escape the skeletons? Remarkably easily, strangely enough. They back him to the edge of a cliff and he jumps off, drowning them (how can they drown? why wouldn’t they walk on the sea floor like those Pirates of the Caribbean skeletons?). He swims to his ship, embraces the girl, and lives happily ever after. Really? Really? It’s that easy? A leap of faith. If only.

Ron Kovic said once, “The scar will always be there, a living reminder of that war, but it has also become something beautiful now, something of faith and hope and love. I have been given the opportunity to move through that dark night of the soul to a new shore, to gain an understanding, a knowledge, and entirely different vision. I now believe I have suffered for a reason and in many ways I have found that reason in my commitment to peace and nonviolence. My life has been a blessing in disguise, even with the pain and great difficulty that my physical disability continues to bring. It is a blessing to speak on behalf of peace, to be able to reach such a great number of people.”

I can only hope one day I will feel the same way about my port scar.