So I’m playing with this little piece of walnut-looking growth on my leg—about twelve inches up from my ankle. It’s hard, crusty and black. It’s been something of a friend of late. I run my fingers over it through my trousers whenever I’m nervous. Something about its small hideousness fascinates me. What’s a handsome guy like me doing by producing this ugly little stinker?
I’m in my dermatologist’s office. I’ve got a rash that I know I got from the horses in Peru where I worked for two months this past summer as a volunteer with mentally and physically disabled kids. It was a horse therapy camp, and I’m sure this purple rash came from the animals. The doctor says it’s a possibility and prescribes something for it.
“Oh, before I forget,” I say. “I’ve got this mole that’s really black, and a growth of some sort; it’s black too.”
He looks. “I’ll do a biopsy on both of them but the growth is a harmless wart.”
I’m back in his office this past Tuesday. He’s all cheerful. “I tried calling you...but I couldn’t…”
I slap him in on the arm. “You didn’t try to call me,” I say laughing. I ask: “How were the results?”
His handsome face lights up.”Oh, they’ll be just fine.” I realize he does not have them at all, but just then his assistant walks in and hands him a chart. He peers closely, then looks at me and says:
Uh-Oh. You’ve got Squamous Cell Carcinoma”
He points to my purple friend whose head is shaved off because of the biopsy two weeks ago.
“That’s not a wart, that’s cancer, and it’s the type that can spread all over your body,” my handsome doctor informs me.
His joviality gone, he does not mince words. His expression is somber.
There are three basic types of skin cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma, which is the least aggressive and most treatable; Squamous Cell Carcinoma, which is more aggressive; and Malignant Melanoma, which, although highly treatable, is the real killer.
It doesn’t sink in. Even after he says we have to get it all out and I can smell my flesh burning as his laser dagger tries to rid my body of my evil enemy, it still doesn’t sink in.
As I’m riding home, I begin to think of forms of death, of the ways in which people die; of the method of dying that Nature has in store for each of us. An awful thought hits me. What if I’ll die in my seventies or eighties but the process has already started. These thoughts arise as I instantly recall the spate of illnesses that have besotted me in the last five years: minor surgery for sinus gone awry—as I’m drowning in my blood I hear a doctor say: “Is he still here? He probably won’t make it.”
Blood in the lungs is like acid on meat. As soon as I begin to heal they find two blood clots in my lungs—hospital; I heal, then: meningitis—hospital. I heal—then pneumonia. I heal, then—
I begin to wonder what sort of Karmic debt I’m paying.
The most perplexing thing about this whole experience is the response of close friends. More and more I realize people don’t want to be around death and sickness, and it is not only because confrontation with the disease or illness of another person will shore up their vulnerability. I believe that there is a logic of contagion at work unconsciously in the minds of people. By mere association with you they’ll be contaminated—physically or metaphysically.
Aside from my mother and my partner, none of my friends have responded to this bout of cancer in my life. One friend makes clucking noises in the back of her throat. I want to say: "honey talk the way your mouth was born. There is no conceptual vocabulary for the vibrations you’re making.” She does not ask about it, expresses no curiosity about treatment. Nothing. Another friend wants to know what I did to cause it; maybe I was sending the wrong message to the universe. No kidding, this New Age addict can justify how little children get raped---they will it unconsciously. Even my brother refuses to mention it. His wife has already told him. When he calls, he speaks as if there is nothing wrong, as if he does not know at all. Finally, after about forty-five minutes into the conversation, I broach the subject and in a lowered voice, he says: “I know.”Another friend of over thirty years sends chit-chat emails as usual after I tell him. Pissed at all of them, I send him a wrathful letter. He claims he sent a long email about the cancer.
I make my peace with it all. The care centers in people’s hearts go into panic overdrive during crises of illness. To confront the decay of the body is to see all of one’s illusions about immortality come tumbling down—smells and all. Too many people are hard on themselves, they’ve never been able to be gentle with who we are at the core—creaturely beings. It’s our creatureliness and our animality which we lustrously conceal through the artifices of our human-made civilization that frighten us the most.
Healthy yesterday. Cancer today. I hope it’s all gone. I hope my handsome doctor got that ugly little cretin before it got me. I don’t miss the purple friend—purple being the color of death. But I do have a new relationship to my body. Perhaps this is Nature’s method for starting the Death Game. If it is, then calm acceptance is the only rational response. I have a deeper respect for my fragile body, a sense that, aside from caring for it, it’s pointless to make too much of it. In the end don’t we all look alike behind the skin?