I was sitting on the examination table at the surgeon’s office. The doctor was telling me I might need to learn to use an eyebrow pencil. (I guess it was clear from one look at me, eyebrow penciling was not part of my skill sets.) He said he might have to take half the brow when he operates. He also said the suture may leave me with a permanent, Jack-Nicholson-as-“The Joker” quizzical look on one side of my face. (OK, these were not his exact words, but I sensed hideous deformity of some sort was in my future.) He was pretty sure gravity (aka my advanced age) would bring the brow back down with time, but if not, the only option would be to have the other one surgically raised. Like that would ever happen.
But at that moment, I was only half hearing any of this. What I was concentrating on was the doctor’s wiggling foot. His legs were crossed at the calf, and the aft foot was wiggling – not with a crack addict’s fury, but in a more subtle, controlled fashion. It made me think that the news he had just delivered was not as eyebrow-pencil-sunny as he was making it out to be. After all, I teach public speaking. I know how to read body language.
The cause of my angst was the word hovering in the air between us, and that hovering word was cancer. He had just informed me that the little white bump over my eyebrow that turned red in the spring was cancerous and that it must come off. It seemed, however, his most major concern was that part of the eyebrow might come with it.
“Eyebrow! Eyebrow!” I wanted to scream. “Who cares about my stupid eyebrows?” (Although I must confess they do have a nice Lauren Bacall arch to them.) “I have CANCER!” Already I could feel the red bump’s lethal tendrils wrapping around my eyeball and reaching into my brain. Would my vision or my motor skills go first? Would I be able to get jokes? Would beer still taste good? I could feel the tears bowing out over the rims of my eyes. “Don’t cry,” I commanded. “Be brave.” So I focused on the foot.
“Any questions?” the surgeon asked, almost offhandedly. I wanted to answer him with a steely “No,” but I could feel the cancer traveling down my neck, over my shoulders, into my spine. Sitting upright suddenly required enormous effort, but I squared myself and said in a very small voice, “Will it… spread?”
The foot stopped. He gave me a quizzical look (mockery!) and then smiled. Oh, no – it’s not that kind of cancer, he explained. Mine was what is called a basal cell carcinoma — a good (if there could be such a thing) cancer. All nice and contained. But then he dealt the most insulting blow of all: This was sun-related skin cancer – on me of all people. Me of the floppy hats and long-sleeved white shirts. Me of the legendary industrial-strength vat of sunblock I cart with me everywhere. Me, seeker of shade and ridiculer of all who tan. Of course, all this didn’t negate the first 30 unprotected sun years of my life, but still it didn’t seem fair.
I left the office with the words basal cell, biopsy, pathologist, eyebrow pencil – and the big one, the C word – spinning in my head. Somewhere in the front of my non-diseased brain, I knew this was not a big deal, that everything – even my shaved and/or quizzical eyebrow – was going to be all right. But the doctor had uttered the C word and scared me. As I sped down I-295, I plugged in an old and loud Ani DiFranco tape, and the tears finally came. “Take me home,” I keened/sung/wailed.
Home. When you have spent as much of your life on the run as I have, sometimes home is your car, sometimes it’s a borrowed room, sometimes it’s the place you can temporarily unpack your books. But this time it meant that you had finally found someone you wanted to make a real home with and that, in your 40s, you woke up and joined the housing boom and bought a fixer-upper off the peninsula, even though you swore you would never leave the peninsula and never buy a fixer-upper. And so there you are, approaching your driveway, with a basal cell carcinoma bearing down on your right eyeball – and you pull in and sit there because right now you love your off-peninsula fixer-upper more than anything. You love that you don’t have to look for a parking space or listen to your neighbors thud up and down the stairs or wait to use the washer and wonder whose cootie undies have been in it all day. And you love the fact that you can go to your basement and pull out your home repair book and grab some tools and decide to take apart the slow-running sink drain in the gacky bathroom. And that, somehow, this is exactly the right thing to do to make you feel better.
And as you’re scooping black sludge from the trap with a chopstick (your all-around tool of choice), you have no way of knowing that a month later, after your surgery (eyebrow spared! margins clear! hardly freakish looking at all! thanks, doc!) and after you’ve had the gacky bathroom demo’ed and redone in pristine white, the idea of home will take on a whole new resonance. How could you know that in a month you will be listening and watching and reading about the aftermath of Katrina as you recover on the couch? And how all these things – the drain and the sludge and the demo and the biopsy and the chaos and the misery — would blur together into one weirdly related chapter in your life in your still-new-to-you home. Because, as any of these things can teach us, we all teeter on the edge of one thing or another.
And that’s a thought that will surely raise some eyebrows.
Elizabeth Peavey’s column runs biweekly. Read it, or she will chase you around with her evil eye.