Jacob Brogan

The world is always ending

Healing: II. Hiding

“What I hide by my language, my body utters.” – Roland Barthes


            Early in his Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes imagines an emotionally fraught scenario: Having wept alone, he dons a pair of dark glasses before meeting with his lover. He does so in part to hide the fact that he has cried, but in part to solicit “the tender question” that will allow him to take them off. Wanting to announce his sorrow, but reluctant to do so on his own behalf, he wears sunglasses indoors so that others will ask him why he wears sunglasses indoors. Apparel, Barthes suggests, can be semiotic as well as functional. In their very ambiguity, certain accoutrements invite interpretative discourse.

            I dwell on this image each morning as I gingerly wind the scarf around my throat. Catherine had handed it to me the night before we left for the hospital, perhaps thinking it would provide me some comfort in an uncomfortable place. She could not have given me a better gift: Like my lavender sachet, it is woven from airy linen. A boldly abstract floral print covers its surface in alternating tones of rich blue and the natural white of the textile fibers. It is a twilight garden, remade in negative and positive space. She told me that she had to work with the company to track it down, finally using my health to speed them along. Who could blame her? We would soon be beyond the time when having cancer was an acceptable excuse. Best to take advantage of this small blessing while we could.

            So, a floral scarf: A comfort, much needed. But also, as it turned out, medically necessary. Just as my surgeon’s instructions for pain management were minimal, so too were her directions for wound care. Indeed, she offered only two: I was to carefully dry the site whenever it was wet and I was to protect it from the sun, preferably with a lightweight scarf. Think of my delight! Fashion always teeters between the wholly practical and the purely aesthetic. Here I was told that Catherine’s gift – this beautiful small thing – was of the former pole despite its pretensions to the latter. Finally a reason to wear scarves in the summer. Mine was literally just what the doctor ordered.

            The scarf quickly became a means of grasping for control in a situation where I still have very little. If my neck needed defending, I would do everything I could to defend it. My neck remains covered even as the sun is setting. I adjust the scarf constantly, forever struggling to ensure both maximal UV protection and minimal fabric flesh contact. Sometimes, as I fuss with it, my knuckles brush up against the slight swelling that surrounds the incision, reminding me what I am protecting. Like my medicines, the scarf is as much a tool of self-mastery as a path to recuperation.

            A floral scarf in the summer inevitably attracts quizzical attention. Its stark permutations insist upon themselves. On the street, I keep thinking that I’m catching judgmental stares. The eyes of strangers seem drawn to my neck, as if captivated by the slubby weave of the fabric that encircles it. Sometimes I think those eyes roll, perhaps because they assume that in the pounding summer heat I am suffering for fashion. Am I imagining things? Almost certainly, and I know it. Nevertheless, I want to stop them so that I can explain myself. This is no ordinary scarf, I’d contend. This scarf is prescription strength.

            Barthes wears his sunglasses to show his puffy eyes by not showing them. Cloaked by my scarf, I likewise point out the very thing I hide. I wear it in part for the pleasure of taking it off, unveiling the flushed line beneath. I want others to see the evidence of my surgery, but I want to turn its visibility into an event rather than an ordinary fact. Only the eyes of others can confirm for me that this mark, this mark which causes me no pain, is real. In the end, strangers fail me in much the same way my family disappointed me when I courted their anger. Everyone is very polite. No one insults my apparel.

            For a month, cancer was the center around which my life revolved. In the wake of my surgery, I am no longer in cancer’s orbit, but I have not learned to trust my own gravity. Having chosen to be sick in public, I have largely avoided the shame that too often accumulates around illness. I have avoided shame, avoided it for a month, and yet I am slightly ashamed as I study my scarf tonight. Barthes hides his sorrow behind tinted lenses so that his lover will make him reveal it. What do I hide behind my scarf if not the fact that I no longer have cancer? I no longer have cancer and I do not know what that means.

            I hide, but I will not hide what I need from you: Ask me to take my scarf off. Show me what it conceals.