Healing: IV. Past, Perfect
Strange how quickly skin knits. Stranger still how slow we are to see it.
When I was five, I sliced off the top of my left thumb. I remember being overcome by a sense of calm in the car ride to the hospital. Bleeding, I must assume, profusely, I demurred when my father suggested I shake my hand to relieve the pain. That will make it bleed more, I told him. Shaking makes the blood flow. Shaking the other hand relieves the impulse. I was right, but can I have said such a thing at five? How is it possible that this tiny version of me already knew what little I know about wound care? I can dutifully summon up an image of the school nurse offering me this information while treating an earlier, more minor cut. And yet I cannot believe that I said these things.
This much I remember with certainty: A doctor numbed my hand with local anesthetic and went to work on my miniscule thumb, reattaching the severed segment. He used a curved needle and translucent thread that jointly resembled the tackle we employed when we fished Lake Erie. The doctor had told me the needle wouldn’t hurt going in, and I suppose it didn’t, but I could feel it all the same, slight pressure of entry and exit, entry and exit.
I had to keep my thumb wrapped in bandages for the rest of the summer. Surprisingly flimsy, these dressings could not stand up to water. Undeterred, I sometimes went swimming with a plastic bag over the whole hand, stretching rubber bands around my wrist to seal it shut. Later, my thumb turned black and scaly from base to peak as the outer layers of skin crumbled to make way for new ones. I would sometimes pull back my gauze armor to frighten other children with the spectacle of digital undeath, two percent zombie all of August. This image is crystalline: I am standing in the gravel outside of the dining hall of the summer camp where my half-sister now works. The bandages slide off easily and I brandish the monstrous thing underneath to a group of older campers. They play it cool, but I know they are horrified.
Vivid memories begin for me that summer, with that wound and the months of healing that followed. Why shouldn’t they? Our pasts always return to us like the aches of old injuries. History is a wound. Memories are nothing but benign scars on the brain. When we are ashamed by something we have done, it is because the memory of the action remains a part of us. At best, we can learn to live with these revenant pains.
Consider this: When the bandages came off, my thumb’s landscape was lunar. I think of it as ugly, though others rarely notice unless I point it out to them. Learning to tell my left from my right, I would make two circles, tapping index finger to thumb on each hand, orienting myself by the roughness of the one more than the smoothness of the other. Watch me weave my way through an unfamiliar city and you’ll still see touch my fingers together today. Knowing it would always be an inescapable memory, I turned my thumb into a lifelong reminder of something else.
Cancer is not yet a memory. The mother of my first friend – a woman who appears in my adult thoughts only as a generous shadow – writes to tell me how hard it is to realize that we are never really free of cancer. In remission for over a decade from an illness far worse than my own, she must live with many scars. But is what cannot be forgotten ever really a memory? The paradox of memory is that we must forget before we can recall. That which is never forgotten, even in passing, can only be a persistent element of consciousness. Can we come to peace with what we merely are? Do cancer’s wounds ever close?
In the most literal sense, my own has, though it still needs time and care. My surgeon pulled the sutures out herself last Friday, the slightest hint of delight crossing her features. My wound has closed, then, closed already, and yet it hasn’t, not yet, not quite. Some things are simple: I had a thyroid; my surgeon took it out. By contrast, I can only say that I had been cancerous before she removed it. This fact is only available to me in relation to another, never as something in and of itself. Often more ideational than substantial, cancer detaches itself from the physical means by which we treat it. The past perfect – my “had been” – locates one occurrence before another. Surgery eliminated two small tumors, but what experience in the last two weeks could expunge the idea of disease? Cancer is in the past now, but its past is not simple. It awaits the arrival of an event that has not yet already occurred.
In writing about healing, I have attended primarily to the physical. On that front, things proceed apace: Yesterday I rode my bike to campus. Today I will take less calcium than I did a week ago. There are passing moments when I forget it happened at all, and, as I forget, memory’s scars take shape. I am healing from surgery, but not yet from my disease. Cancer’s toll has been psychic, a weight on the mind rather than the whole body. I can do push-ups again, but it will be some time before I am strong enough to lift cancer. I will be in recovery much longer.
Still, time is a field. Let me imagine that in a month or two I meet my five year old self there. If I know him, and I do, his nose has probably been bleeding, even if it has clotted by now. We each ask after the other’s summer vacation. He brandishes his left hand. The stitches have fallen out, though it will never look entirely normal. Cut off my thumb, he says in his small voice. You? –Got cancer, I reply.
Already a memory. Already a scar. The start of a story.
-July 22, 2014-July 29, 2014