“Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Undearneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life!”
-- Emily Dickinson
I’ll admit it; it’s an ungainly sight to see me squeezing into a fire engine red plastic chair at the Cardiology Department waiting room at Children’s Hospital Boston. There is just this egregiously comic juxtaposition on so many levels. If I stand up I could easily affix the chair to my ass. I am the only patient here filling out her own medical history. I am the only patient here who can sign her own authorization and consent papers, as I know how to write in cursive. Ironically, the other patients, who are sucked into the unnerving gyrations of The Wiggles on the overhead television, are braver than I am now or could ever be.
Seventeen years ago, when I was two, I was here. In this hospital. My head bopped along eagerly to the theme song of Darkwing Duck. The doctor showed my mother a diagram. I looked over and saw her in hysterics. Immediately I snapped out the rapture of animated juvenilia. My mother was crying. Like, really crying. Shit had just gotten real.
The tumor, which he called, a “mask”, reminded me of the Jim Carrey movie of the same name. Was it green? Did it stretch and contort cartoonishly in opportune situations? Did it spell my demise or would it land me into mischievous social sparring with cops and Cameron Diaz? I wasn’t exactly sure what all the fuss was about. My mother had brought along my brother. We exchanged glances and siphoned our nervousness into what was going on the television screen.
At home, I heard my mother explaining to various family members that I had some kind of “tumor” in my “aorta”, pronouncing the words in her unmistakable New Jersey accent. The tumor would turn out to be benign and I came home from the hospital with a snuggly koala bear. I also bore a pulpy vine of raised fleshed intertwined with what looked like black gimp. I ran my fingers down it from time to time. The paradox of textures would often peak my curiosity. Slick plastic stitches and malleable flesh were were somehow creeping me together.
I eventually got the stitches taken out. I was left with a vertical scar winding down my chest like the Nile on a map of Egypt. The dermatologist I consulted with promised my mother it would fade away after a few weeks. It never did. My mother tried applying Mederma after seeing it work wonders in television commercials. I hated the smell and instantly became cranky. Even after losing my snuggly koala bear, my brother four years later, and my mother about a decade later—the scar still remains. In my developmental years it became my identifying niche. Yeah, I had cheated death. I was a real textbook baby. Tank tops never fell to the way side in the summers of my girlhood and by the time I was thirteen, there were other things on my chest people were staring at and asking about.
Now, at age nineteen, I am here for my routine bill of health; after the appointment, I will go up to the receptionist’s desk and schedule another appointment two years from now. Out of sight, out of mind…seal up the chest and give it a rest.
But this time, something is not right. Dr. Levine says that there is a part of heart she hears that’s moving slower than the rest.
And instantly, I go from scarred to scared. The scar is no longer a bad-ass emblem of the second chance I got at life. It’s a line of demarcation of my dizzying waltz with mortality. My mother isn’t here to spend the night with me in my hospital bed, cuddle with me, sing me songs, coo away with insomnia with her never-fail rendition of “Jesus Loves Me”. My brother isn’t here to be the brave middleman, for my mom and me. And that snuggly little koala bear doesn’t mean shit now.
If I could have my way, somebody would just put me under, cut me open, fiddle around, remove a mass, and tell me everything was alright.
The heart. It’s a funny thing.
(To be continued...)