My skin is generously shaded with colors, but mostly it’s soft brown. Some people have called me a light- skinned black woman, but I don’t see myself as black or white. I don’t see race in myself. I just see me. I’m a blend of my parents: a white mother and a black father. Although they contributed to my appearance, I never knew them at all.
When I stand in front of the mirror, what I see are my imperfections. Some small, almost undetectable birthmarks, some wrinkles and veins that decline to stay deep under my brown skin. But it’s a large, particular scar that bothers me. It has left me looking unbalanced. I have two arms, two legs, two eyes, two lips, two nostrils, two ears, two butt cheeks. But I have only one breast.
They made me a prosthetic so I look balanced when I’m wearing clothing. I can almost show my cleavage, it looks so natural. But I know it isn’t natural. I used to be proud of my body. It was fit. I wore it well. I felt secure inside it. But now when I go out in public, I know I should feel normal since no one is pointing at me, but I’m very aware of my missing breast. My body is disfigured.
I should be over this. It’s been eight years and the threat is gone. The cancer shouldn’t come back. Is it ever really gone, though? I’m paranoid that one day I will get the news that my enemy has returned. I’ve had dreams lately that freak me out, dreams of an illness so bad there is no treatment, no remission, no escape.
I can read my body like a book. There’s the smiling scar from when Conrad was born and the stretch marks from my other two kids. There’s the scar under my eye from my childhood, when my friends and I were having a dirt clod fight and Becky, my best friend, landed a good one that split my cheek wide open. How did we ever stay friends? It seemed like she was trying to kill me.
Becky became my best friend after the car accident, the one that killed both of my parents and sent me to live with my grandparents. That was in the days before MADD and strict laws regarding drinking and driving. My parents were on their way to get me when a drunken man drove his car into them, head- on. He was so drunk his body went limp when the cars collided. He only suffered bruised ribs, a concussion, and a broken wrist. But the impact was so awful that my parents had a closed casket funeral. My granddad had to go to the morgue and identify the bodies. He told me that that moment changed his life. He said my mother, his daughter, was recognizable only by the pattern on her dress and the wedding ring on her finger.
I take care of my skin; I like how unique it is. I’ve lived in this town most all my life. It’s a small town with mainly white folks, and I have never been aware of any difference in color. No one treats me any different because of my skin. This small town is my home. I love it here. In the past, I had good offers to leave it, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t. I love it that much.
But I was writing about my scars, wasn’t I?
I don’t see taking care of my skin as a chore. I see it as a ritual. When I’m spreading lotion on my body, I also rub it over my scar. I feel it. I’ve become intimate with it. It doesn’t hurt, but sometimes I feel a strange almost tickling sensation under it, like the nerves that were cut are confused and don’t know what to stimulate. I can feel the nerves firing, but then they surface in another part of my body, not where I’m touching it.
It’s different from the paresthesia that is associated with the nerve damage by the chemo. That’s more like a slight burn, or sometimes a severe itch. My scar is different. It’s the scar that has made me ugly and at times unwanted by my husband Colt.
Colt is a good man. He’s a fantastic father to our children. He’s a great husband. Or was. But ever since the mastectomy, he avoids intimacy and if he has to touch me he does ever so gently that I barely know I’ve been touched. Is it me? Or is it that he’s found someone else to give his affections to?
There had better be a real good reason why Colt isn’t home by now. It’s damn late or very early in the morning, depending on how one looks at it, and I’ve been up for hours worrying about him. Maybe the band wrecked that old bus of theirs and they had to spend the night at the hospital. Maybe every one of their cell phones has lost its charge and he has no way of calling home.
God help him if he’s out cheating on me!
If he’s fooling around with some whore he stumbled across while I’ve been home alone in this bed, he’s got something coming to him when he does get home.
I suppose she’s young and cute with two perky boobs and a tight ass. She probably looks at him with wanting eyes, young eyes, or worse, seductive eyes.
How can I blame her? He’s damn good to look at, especially when he’s on stage. And that voice of his…. It’s just my bad luck (or Colt’s good luck) that I’d get old and ugly and he’d stay young looking and handsome. I see the girls looking him over when we go out. I used to be proud that he got those hungry looks. Now that I’m fifty, I’m afraid of those looks. I’m afraid of girls looking at him.
What should I use to the knock the shit out of him with when he gets home? I don’t want to kill him. Hell, I love him too much for that. I just want something heavy in my hand when he makes his excuses. Once I see the lie in his eyes, I’m going to swing and BOOM! I’ll knock the lie right out of that deceitful mouth.
Like I said, there had better be a damn good reason why he didn’t come home, or tonight I’ll be down on my knees begging God to forgive me for the beating I gave him.
Well, Colt came home this morning and tried to feed me some bullshit story about his sister being sick. Hell, that woman’s been sick all her life! He’s never needed to spend the night with her before.
What bothers me is how concerned he looked when he told me the story. The other thing is, I checked my voice mail. He’d left me three messages and sent two texts saying his sister needed him. That damn cell phone sits at the bottom of my purse. I never hear it ring.
I listened to Colt tell me his story. I pushed my suspicions aside and played along.
The thing is, Colt is my Achilles’ heel. I’ve always loved cowboys, a man with harden muscles from working with cattle and the land. Not the city dude in boots and a hat, not an imitation but the real deal in faded jeans.
I remember when we first began dating. I was so naive in the ways of cowboys. But not men in general. I’d had my share of men before I found Colt, but Colt was my first and last real cowboy. He lived on his parents’ ranch and mileage was accumulating on my Mazda RX-7 because I visited there so often. But I didn’t mind. How could I resist a man that rode a horse named Mr. Personality? Little did I know that I was being carefully extracted from the independence I was so proud of.
My grandparents had passed away a year apart. I was young and filled with romantic ideas, but I was also lonely and still grieving. My granddad left me their house and some money. I sold the house, hoping to rid myself of the pain that lingered from their deaths, and bought a loft in the middle of town down by Washington Park.
I remember it too well. Winter was coming on, and the threat of being alone was starting to overwhelm me, so I spent more time up at the ranch. I’m sure Colt and his family thought a ranch was the last place a black, hippie girl wanted to be, but I did. In fact, I was there so often that his dad, Garrett, asked me if I had moved in without him knowing it. I was there so often that his mom, Tammy Jo, became someone I would gladly call my friend. She told me she was thankful for me because I seemed to tame the wildness in her son. If I did tame him a little, it came naturally. I didn’t put any effort into it. Back in those days I remember how, after I spent the night there, I would get up to get dressed and Colt would pull me back down on the bed and then he’d spend the next two hours putting another smile on my face.
I had been out of college only a year. I thought I knew things. I thought I was smart. Well, he taught me things that made my degree seem worthless. He has a degree in veterinary science, so he’s book smart. But his real knowledge comes from nature and the animals he works with. He’d gone into the Marines to get the G.I. Bill for school, and when I met him he’d been out of college for two years. He’d decided to help his father on the ranch. On the weekends, he played in his band. That is where Colt really shines. On stage.
I’m not an aggressive person, and before I met Colt, I always detested hunters, guns, and anything I saw as destructive. But Colt spoke about going to places like Alaska, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana to hunt eatable animals. Caribou. Musk ox. Elk. Deer. Dall sheep.
“Have you ever shot an animal?” he asked me one time.
“No,” I said. “No, I haven’t.” I wanted to tell him I didn’t like hunting or hunters; but I already knew that I was in love with him, so I acted interested. I didn’t want to put him off.
“Do you want to go hunting with me sometime?”
“That’s something for men to do, isn’t it? I’ve got no business killing an animal.”
“I can see your perspective,” he said. “I won’t hunt anything I don’t eat, and I eat it because it’s the healthiest food available.” At first I didn’t like the taste of his wild animals, but after a while eating them in every meal, it grew on me. I’d work in the kitchen with Tammy Jo using elk burger, venison steaks, or Dall roast to make a meal with, and the meat was always complemented with corn, carrots, potatoes and even eggplant that she grew in her own garden. I doubt she even had a thought that her garden was filled with organic produce, but that’s exactly what she grew. I’d always wanted to be an organic farmer, and working with Tammy Jo taught me a great deal about gardening, canning, and storing the harvested vegetables. It didn’t take me
long to enjoy what Colt’s mother put on the table. Colt and his family were pure country, not just cowboy boots, western clothes, and pickup trucks. I knew I’d met the real deal, a fading breed of folks who’ve been replaced by modern conveniences. I’m from the city, and I won’t argue that I have a city attitude, but I appreciate Colt and his family for the lifestyle they’re living. Sometimes I feel guilty for taking Colt off the ranch. We live in town now. That’s because the reality for me is that if I’m raising a family, we need health insurance, a steady income, good schools, and (I hate to admit it) all the other modern conveniences. I guess I need to be fair, though. Little did Colt know he was being extracted from the life he loved.
Oh, crap, I got off track again. Colt and his family opened their home to me and I spent my first Christmas since my grandparents passed away with a warm, comfortable family. I was aware how important it was for me to have someone like Colt in my life. More important was having that feeling of family. I didn’t just want it; I needed it.
I also hate to admit it, but I was a suspicious girlfriend. After losing my grandparents I realized that just because I loved someone that didn’t mean they would be a permanent part of my life. I felt vulnerable and when he got a phone call and I wasn’t sure who he was talking to, I interrogated him. “Who was that?” I’d say, and then I looked in his eyes for glimmers of deceit. Or if I hadn’t seen him for a day or so and he came and gave me a big kiss and a hug I used the kiss and hug as an opportunity to sniff him for the smell of another woman. I was afraid of some beautiful ranch woman who knew how to hunt and was strong in ways I wasn’t. I was afraid he’d found someone who could love him better than I could.
He never knew I didn’t trust him. But can anyone blame me? He was a dream right out of a romance novel. I was sure every girl who ever saw him wanted to be with him. When his band played, I’d hear the women in the bathroom talking about him. Some women can be very explicit. All my jealousy and suspicions were pushed away, however, on the second Christmas. That’s when he proposed to me.
Imet with my financial advisor today to discuss my retire- ment and investments. Afterward, I drove to Washington Park and took a few minutes to stroll and think. As I walked in the park, I thought about the future and what I would do in my retirement years. I don’t think I can handle too much leisure. Maybe I could expand our garden. I love working with the dirt and watching the growth of everything in the garden. It gives me peace. I give each and every thing growing there a name. Every plant is a friend of mine.
Gardening gives me a sense of peace. My mother-in-law taught me it was fine to love gardening, it was all right to individualize the plants. I love her big garden. I remember how Tammy Jo helped me during my bout with breast cancer. Gardening became my therapy.
At first, the cancer wasn’t a moment of high drama like we see in movies, where the star is overwhelmed by illness and the doctor comes running into the exam room, yelling at the nurse to do several things to save the patient’s life. Cancer is sneaky. It creeps up quietly, achingly, it can be slow and elusive and subtle. I was fighting symptoms thinking they were the illness. But the symptoms weren’t the main event. They were only transformations of a deeper problem that twisted itself up in my right breast. The deeper problem that manifested and would have to be excavated out of my body had created fear, grief, and stress that had no boundaries.
During my war with cancer, our insurance company determined it was a preexisting condition and wouldn’t cover it. How can they do things like that? Colt and I went through colossal financial difficulties, including threats of losing our home, repossession of our vehicles, and liquidation of most of our assets. It was a very dark time for us on so many levels. So, today as I walked I was thankful I still had my retirement fund and could discuss it with my advisor. I was thankful to be healthy enough to walk around on a hot summer’s day.
Thank you, God, for remission! I don’t necessarily believe in God, but isn’t that who we are supposed to thank in times like this? Maybe I just don’t know who God is.
I thought about the blessing of remission while I was walking in the park. I didn’t want to squander my retirement years doing mundane crap. It was strange. It was as if my walking only made me think about my remission more and that led me to want more than the life I’m living now. Things have changed. I don’t know if it’s Colt, the kids, or me. I don’t know, but what I do know is that something’s changed at home. And work…well, work is shit. It’s full of politics and cliques. I’m so tired of all that.
While I was walking, drifting along in my thoughts of gratitude for life, I was suddenly besieged by a craving for a Mountain Dew. It’s funny, but during my treatment phase I started craving Mountain Dew. To this day, I’ve never lost it. There are a couple hot dog venders in Washington Park, but only one of them sells the nectar I was in search of. I found him, bought my soda, popped the top, and took a long drink. The fizzy liquid quenched my dry throat. Ahh, relief.
I sipped the rest as I walked. The sky was as bright and blue as it should be on good summer days. Soon I felt moved to pray. When I pray, I pray to my granddad. He’s the closest person to God I ever knew. In fact, in my mind he was even better than God, and that’s why I pray to him.
If I had one wish that could come true, it would be that I was young again and with my granddad. He made the world a simple, loving place to live in. He wasn’t ever afraid of anything, and he knew the answer to my every question or doubt. To be honest, the older I get, the more I need his courage. The world isn’t simple anymore. Since the cancer, I’ve lived every day in fear. Just once, I would like to feel in control of my life. I feel like the things that are the most important to me are the smallest part of my life. Like gardening. It’s important to me but I never seem to have time for it.
I have a small garden, but I still miss going out to the ranch and helping Tammy Jo. I’ve been so busy these last few years that the things I used to do, the things I like to do, have been put off for other “more important” things. Maybe when I retire I’ll have time to keep a big garden. I feel sad, though. By the time I’ll be able to retire, Tammy Jo will probably have passed. Time is my enemy.
In order for me to be any good in the office, I have to put myself in a state of fantasy. I have to almost hypnotize myself by daydreaming about retirement and a better life. If I don’t pause from my fantasy of retirement, my fingers get stiff and don’t function on the keyboard. It’s as if when I’m lost in my daydream, my body goes into some kind of autopilot and does work in a timelier manner.
I had to write something by hand today, and I was embarrassed by my penmanship. It was so inelegant. I remember when I was young. In college, I was proud of my handwriting. I got pleasure out of watching my hand form the letters, like the capital B with its curls and swirls, and the little f that adds so much personality to the letters in a sentence. I had a way of innovating my handwriting that people took notice of, but today it only looked wiggly. It looked like the handwriting of an old woman.
I don’t dislike the mechanical, non-human part of my job. I like the routine nature of my work—data entry—and all the thousands of entries that I input every day to generate a temporary balance and assure the management team that everything is in order. This doesn’t tire me. What it does is give me time to think about other things. It allows my mind to dream.
Sometimes I feel like I’m two different people. One is the person that knows the work in the office like a machine, the woman who is completely a master of the ins and outs of her job and is always confident, professional, and efficient.
But the other me is a dreamy and enthusiastic woman who is full of frustrated passion. I’m a sad woman who longs for more from her unsophisticated life. I’m an absent-minded woman who has no concern for how much data she’s processed or if the account is balanced. A woman that dreams of romance, excitement – who longs to be understood.
The insufferable part of my job isn’t the routine. It’s the latest dilemma, the unexpected urgent demand that comes down from the constantly shifting management team. The director comes down and demands a special task get immediate attention. I cringe when I hear the words “Can you do me a favor?” because they always have some complicated surprise hidden behind them. There are also those times when my supervisor tells me, “The management staff would like your team to gather the data for Account X.” Concealed under the casual request is the real demand that screams URGENT. Like an audit of an account over the past five years. Or the forecast of an account ten years into the future. Since the request is more than routine everything within me stops, and the two people that live inside me have to work together. The daydreaming comes to an end. I can no longer think about my best interests, I have to shift and think about what is good for the company. Why should I care about the approximate profit from one of our accounts in the third quarter of the fiscal year two years ago?
I had a dream last night that’s been bothering me all day. I relived the death of my granddad. There he was, dying in his bed, with his doctor standing there. He was a practical man, my granddad. Even when he was dying, his attitude was that he’d better get on with it because any delay would keep folks from getting their chores done. In my dream, I looked at the doctor, and he said, “Your granddad has lost his voice. He can’t speak for himself.” I could see that. Granddad was in pain, his breathing
was shallow. And then he forced a breath past his vocal cords. He made some coarse, rough sound. But he wouldn’t say any words. He was only crying out because of the pain.
Then the doctor put a syringe in my hand. “The law says I can’t do it, Hope, but you can,” he whispered after he’d look around to make sure no one could hear. “You’re his closest relative, so it will be considered an honorable act. Just put this in his IV tube and he’ll be dead. Give him the relief he’s asking for.”
“No,” I almost shouted. “No, I can’t do that. I love him.” I held onto Granddad’s hand and cried, “I love you so much I can’t do this, I just can’t.”
The doctor said, “It’s an act of love. You can do this. It’s an act of mercy.”
I knew my granddad wanted me to do it. I knew if he could have done it himself, he would have already done it. I looked around the hospital room. As the inflatable hospital bed moved him, it groaned as much as he was groaning. The feeding pump hummed at a low frequency, the oxygen mask hissed, the alarm on the IV pump kept beeping. Granddad’s hands were tied to the sides of the bed so he wouldn’t try to harm himself. His face was pale, paler than usual, and he had dark rings under his blue eyes. His gray hair looked waxy.
That dream was so real, I could even smell the antiseptic used to clean the floor. As I studied my granddad, the words quality of life danced through my mind. I wanted my granddad to be alive. Selfishly, I wanted him with me forever…but not tied to a bed, unable to talk or feed himself. Then the words death with dignity surged through my mind. And I grabbed the syringe out of the doctor’s hand and stuck it in the IV line, killing the one man I loved more than anyone else in the world.
“Thank you,” the doctor said. “You know, he was my best friend. I just couldn’t stand for him to suffer any longer.”
And then I looked at my granddad and he smiled at me, and a sense of peace came over me. It was a strange dream. Part of it was true. My granddad hadn’t been able to speak. He’d been restrained at the end. But his death really came in the form of a severe stroke. No one injected anything into his IV line, and the doctor was a stranger to him, definitely not his best friend.
I wonder about dreams. Why do we have them? Are they some kind of communication? From who?