This post doesn’t get a trigger warning, exactly – just a sticker for minor TMI and, well, a bit of ickiness.
Yesterday Hitler went into his bunker one more time. By the time my lecture ended at 2 p.m., he had died again – and not a moment too soon. While we’ve still got another week of classes, I must say it’s a mighty relief to know that Hitler is now charred beyond recognition. For all the satisfactions I’ve found in teaching this course, it has been emotionally and intellectually arduous. (And of course, my own struggles are a trifle, compared with those who were actually, historically victimized by the Third Reich.)
But this is not a post about Hitler. Indeed, now that Hitler is out of the picture – and just in time for the three-day weekend, too! – I finally feel free to take some time to sticky-tack my own life back together. For instance? Long-deferred trips to the doctor, including my first-ever visit to the dermatologist. If you’ve checked out my little Sungold pic, it’s obvious that surveillance for skin cancer ought to have started with me still in the womb. And indeed, the doc agreed that two of the spots I’d identified as potential trouble were precisely that. Out came the portable deep freeze, which spritzed all points of suspicion with liquid nitrogen. Those trouble spots now look far worse than ever, but I’ve been assured that any rogue cells have been killed dead, and that the dark-brown spots will eventually fade, rather than being the first step toward dressing as a Sexy Dalmatian next Halloween.
But then there was a third spot, not nearly so suspicious, but quite uncomfortable whenever I leaned back against a hard wooden chair. My doc said no problem, we can remove that mole, too. This trick, however, required a signed consent form, a shot of lidocaine, and a few stitches.
Afterward, I asked to see the “specimen,” now floating in a jar, which would be sent to pathology. It looked remarkably like a very pale pencil eraser. It look like a pencil eraser had mated with a fetal pig preserved in formaldehyde. Yes, I do see the biological implausibility of this. I’m going for the aesthetic point while realizing that this is – at best – the opposite of aesthetic.
I am not grossed out by things floating in glass jars. For that, I spent far too much time reading historical medical journals while working on my dissertation. I was just fascinated at how this plug of tissue, barely reddened and fringe-y where it had moments earlier nestled near my spine, had gone within seconds from being me to not-me.
All of which brought me back to a theme that has preoccupied me ever since, some weeks ago, I was looking through some college-era pictures. Those quarter-century old pictures were also, emphatically, me/not-me, though mostly on a symbolic level.
Nestled among the photos was an old braid of hair. My hair. It wasn’t a mere representation. This braid? It was physically me. I had grown it, brushed it, more or less tenderly cared for it. And then one day, soon after I met my someday-husband, I needed lightness, and so off went my locks. (This was before anyone was aware of Locks of Love. From today’s vantage point, I suspect my braid is too short to donate. Anyway, the vintage of my braid (1992!) hardly makes me a fab donor candidate.)
This braid is still tangible. You can pick it up and stroke it, marveling at how much softer my hair was in my youth, back when I rarely blowdried it and never colored it.
It is a piece of my youth, transported, whole and unfaded, into my increasingly middle-aged present.
Mostly, though, I almost feel as though this disembodied piece of me should be able to bear witness. It cannot, of course. But it should, dammit! Nothing else in my life has stayed inert since 1992. I’ve married, borne two children, moved from Germany back to the U.S., bought a house, finished a dissertation, embarked on a teaching career, seen my husband through two forms of cancer, and learned to like horseradish.
I think similar thoughts about my kids’ teeth as they lose them. I have no dignified way to keep them. They pile up in plastic ziplocs like tiny pawns for a game as yet to be determined. These little gamepieces are both of my children and yet wholly other. I do not know why I keep them. I couldn’t bear to thrown the in the trash. They’d require a solemn burial.
I guess there are two aspects of our permeable, detachable, deconstructable bodies that perturb me.
One is that these lost teeth remind me of aging, and I don’t just mean my own. As he approaches his seventh birthday, the Tiger now has only half of his top teeth. When his permanent teech ease into place, his little-boy grin will be gone forever. Actually, it already is. When that little boy is gone, he’s gone for good. He’s essentially dead, apart from those fragments of memory we carry with us. They are never enough.
The other thing? All these loose part – these spare parts – remind me that it’s not just the body that’s permeable. Our selves are permeable and unstable. Call me a postmodernist, but I think this is both true, and deeply unsettling.
Or maybe I’m just my mother’s daughter. For years after her gallbladder removal, she kept a vial of her stones in the medicine cabinet. I’m guessing they’re still there.