On Monday I had a small patch of skin cancer removed from the bridge of my nose. It sounds like a big deal, but it wasn’t. The procedure itself felt no worse than having an earlobe pierced: There was only a quick, surprising burn as the doctor applied a local anesthetic, but the actual procedure seemed to last no longer than a network station break. It was only the sound of cutting that got to me, the dull snip of flesh—the sound you might hear if your dinner companion chose to cut their meaty filet with a pair of cuticle scissors.
That aside, it felt relaxing to be lying down in the middle of the day, under a warm blanket, a pillow tucked beneath my knees. I dozed off. When I awoke, I had a bandage on my face the size of a hamburger bun. I touched at it curiously, like a blind man learning the face of a friend.
The bigger deal actually came the next day, when a different doctor—this time, a plastic surgeon—followed up to putty the now-concave part of my nose. In the world of cosmetic surgery, it’s called a “repair,” and it’s performed to fix parts of the body deformed by congenital defects, or developmental abnormalities, or trauma: a knife fight, dog bite, or, in my case, an angry little bald-faced tumor that took up residence and required rough eviction by the authorities.
The plan was to clip off a small piece of skin by my ear and “graft it,” the surgeon said, onto my nose. The word “graft” always makes me think of efforts to reproduce heirloom apple varietals, and immediately I conjured up twigs and tape. But in this case, it would be more like a patch sewn onto frayed denim. It sounded simple enough, but as it turned out, this surgery was more involved than I anticipated: If yesterday’s was a child’s simple wooden puzzle, today’s was a 5,000-piece monster jigsaw designed to challenge shut-ins for weeks.
It took longer, required more anesthetic, and when I awoke and stood swaying in front of the hospital lavatory mirror, it had dropped a gauze pad the size of a nickel onto my nose. It looked like a dollhouse pincushion sewn onto my face with crazy Frankenstein stitches. If I had buttons for eyes, I’d look like a not-very-talented child’s attempt at a crude, stuffed doll. I had a blinding headache, burning eye from a bit of iodine swabbed too closely to it, and a swollen face that left me unable to smile or sip water without dribbling it down the front of my cement-colored hospital gown. And though I didn’t know it then, I felt better than I would over the next two days.
It was not so much the affects of the surgery but the prescribed pain drug, a narcotic, that seemed my biggest bully. It was hot pink and oblong, like a jelly bean in an Easter basket. It looked like candy, but once past my lips it made quick work of bringing me to my knees. Evil and powerful, it pinned me down for days on the couch, curled into a motionless ball, as my cracked and swollen lips whispered, “Take me now, sweet Jesus.” The pill incited a cascade of agonies: a series of mutinies from my head, my gut, my bowels. My organs all seemed to be plotting a conspiracy against me, to make my existence as painful as possible.
I lived not so much day-by-day or minute-by-minute, but second-by-second, willing my head to stop pounding and the roiling, heaving sea in my stomach to calm. When it didn’t—when instead it erupted into the purple plastic bowl like a kind of foamy, foul birch beer—I made all sorts of promises to reform my ways. I’d be kinder, nicer, more giving. I’d volunteer in a soup kitchen. I’d offer our spare room to a homeless person. Sweating onto the sheets, I vowed to take better care of myself: I’d wear SPF 45, even in winter. I’d take a multivitamin. I’d work on my quads.
With a little distance, and a rational explanation from the surgeon over the telephone, I can now see that my system was reacting to a kind of affront from the double wallop of anesthesia and the pain drugs. But when you are in the throes of it, it’s hard not to wonder whether you might have seriously pissed someone off. It’s hard not to offer to make amends, to strike a deal. With anyone.
Gradually, I grew to tolerate the pink pill, but I still depended on whoever was home with me for the simplest of tasks. Family members came in from work or school, and I marveled that their worlds were still continuing: They still left in the morning and came home at night, same as always, like nothing had happened. I sensed the winter chill from their jackets like Anne Frank feeling the snow that clung to the coats of attic visitors.
They helped me from the bed to the couch, and then held a glass to my lips so I could sip the tiniest of sips. They fetched more dry crackers. This was the kind of pampering that I might, were I feeling better, actually enjoy, and possibly milk a little. But in these circumstances, I felt sad, pathetic, and robbed of something.
I was able, after another day or two, to bear the sound of the TV or stereo, stimuli that had previously provoked my stomach to pitch. I’d convalesce in front of the television and stare at an endless flow of sitcoms. I was heavy into sitcoms when I was younger—at one point, my whole world revolved around the scheduled airing of my favorite shows—but it wasn’t until now, perhaps with the insight proffered by my narcotic pink pill, that I realized with a dawn of recognition that each sitcom was all about me. About my life: my relationships, my kids, the way I am.
Incredibly, each 30-minute segment featured a female lead exactly like me, with my characteristics: The way I embarrass my family with my played-up, over-the-top enthusiasm; my controlling tendencies; my inclination to nit-pick. All was revealed to me in Technicolor, and I read its code like a truth I’d been too dim-witted to realize before. It probably helped that my vision was blurred, because my nickel-sized nose cushion prevents me from wearing my glasses. The fuzzy characters on the screen could be good-hearted anyones. Like my sometimes hapless but generous and loving man. Like my wise-cracking teen. Like my cute-as-a button youngest. My competitive sister. My intrusive neighbor. Like you. Like me.
I was reconciling my life with “Everybody Loves Raymond” when the pink pill made me doze off. When I awoke, it was late afternoon: the TV was off, and the clock radio next to my head had switched on, playing a hit parade of current songs with some older classics mingled in.
“Listen, it don’t really matter to me/Baby, you believe what you wanna believe,” sang the radio. “You see, you don’t have to live like a refugee.”
Then: “Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have/Kicked you around some/Tell me why you wanna lay there/Revel in your abandon….”
Now this was something I recognized, maybe more so than George Lopez and the King of Queens. It spoke to me of the way I was living now, in my inner world, as a refugee within my own body, that erstwhile place of comfort and ease. A bucolic place, even, where I felt capable and safe. It allowed me to accomplish things with proficiency and ease, to navigate my world while easily surmounting impediments and roadblocks.
But lying here now, I realized, I was in exile: Things I took for granted were unexpectedly off-limits. I didn’t have access to the same resources I’d come to enjoy and, I admitted it now, took for granted. Whereas once I wandered the streets without a care in the world, confident that I’d wake up the next day and carry on as I always had, now I wasn’t so sure. I was a stranger in this land, this place, this body that turned out to be unpredictable and deceiving. I couldn’t depend on it to get me through my day as I was accustomed.
Tom Petty was right. Maybe I wasn’t living in an actual shanty or camp, but I was living as something that resembled refugee status. I’d lost my independence, and now existed in that murky place where I resented asking for help I desperately needed.
Lying there in the dusky light, my head propped up at an uncomfortable angle to keep the swelling down, I sang along silently in my head:
“Honey, it don’t make no difference to me
Baby, everybody’s had to fight to be free
You see, you don’t have to live like a refugee
No baby, you don’t have to live like a refugee.”
But I do, Tom, I do… at least for now. But not for long. By next week—two at the most—I’ll be better. For another few decades, knock wood, I’ll again walk the streets of my inner hometown, unfettered, in total confidence.
Outside my window, the cold winter sky was rolling from a smoky gray to black. I wasn’t really cold, but the sight of it made me shiver. I pulled the blanket closer to my oddly angled chin just as another thought occurred to me. I wondered, But for how long, exactly?
How long before we all, in a way, become exiled from ourselves—from the able-bodiedness of our youth? Because of age, or illness, or whatever else that can rob us of fitness and vigor? How long do any of us—you, me, George Lopez, the hapless, the wisecracking, the competitive, the cute-as-a-button—really have? How long before all of us become, in a sense, permanent refugees, with no hope of ever going home?