There were no mirrors in my private hospital room’s toilet so I hadn’t seen myself for almost a week. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s met me in person that I don’t pay that much attention to my face anyway. What’s there to see? Crooked glasses; an unwillingness to shave the salt ‘n’ pepper; a chin with a tendency to droop when I drink too much; wide, angry eyes.
When I have to look at my body, my torso — when changing my colostomy bag, for example — I tend to just look down. It’s somehow less disturbing that way to see the changes my body’s undergone after peritonitis, two emergency surgeries, a radiation cycle, and several cycles of chemotherapy: A buried navel once wrenched to the right but now nearly covered, a suspected incisional hernia which I’ve never had the patience or will to have diagnosed, undulating folds of bulging belly-flesh that make me wonder what’s under there, a chronic blister filled with black blood, a souvenir from Hospital Rivadavia.
Coming out of the hospital and crashing for a night with friends in Congresso, I looked in their mirror and saw a man who had made a spectacle of himself in a way that most cancer patients do not. Or don’t have to. I’ve detailed the humiliating aspects of my colostomy bag, the frustrations of managing the public health care system in a foreign country, the anger of knowing that another human being wants to destroy me, the depression of poverty and isolation and living without the primary support of a partner, spouse or family, the bizarre conundrum of not really wanting to die anymore and yet not being able to see another way out, except for more pleading, more writing and more spectacle. Writing in this way means an additional level of embarrassment when going out, over and above the kind that’s there for every terminal patient still trying to have a social life — no one really knows what to say to you. Those with the weakest character usually end up saying nothing, or something stupid, which is kind of a relief, sometimes of the comic kind. (Some kind soul actually said to me, back when the watchwords were Stage IV and metastases, Get well soon!) But sometimes everybody ends up saying nothing, which is no comfort at all.
Now that I’ve finally made it past the surgery (after, what, 4 runs at it?) and having received the startling news that there is no visible cancer, I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. I still have the colostomy, but in a little less than two months, if I make it (see: poverty), I’ll have another surgery to remove that, and then… what?
I’d like to start digging ditches, something physical, something far, far away from social media. You’d think because social media helped save me, that I’d be a booster. You’d be wrong. I’ll really become a misanthrope if I get another like on life-threatening or life-altering or life-changing bits of writing that I’ve wrenched out of myself like the catheter the nursed pulled out of me last week, taking two tries — it was a long fucking tube. I don’t want to be liked, in that way anyway, and I don’t think I’ve written in a way that makes that easy. Honest writing really isn’t all that likeable. Yet, they tell me, it goes viral.
But still, I would like to stop it, stop writing. About cancer, about anything. I want 5 years at least of cooking, eating, fucking (if I can figure out how to disrobe in front of another human being without the act itself being the point), working out, even, maybe. Anything to forget the body that I was, the mind that made it so.
I imagine myself standing alone, looking out into a dark so black and smelling an earth so rich as to make me forget the smell of my own drying blood, an iron odor that’s far too familiar. I want blurs of banal experience I would find tedious and pointless to construct paragraphs around and others would find tedious to read: Smoking silently on a new friend’s porch, drinking an unremarkable beer, conversation revolving around produce or how blue the sky, unpressured with confessions or admissions of mortality or weakness, with everyone around me forever clueless to my scars or scabs, or the memories of shivering violently, naked under a sheet, a fresh, foot-long Frankenstein-slice in my belly, on a gurney with no one who could speak with me within earshot, or even walking distance, eyes squinted closed like a newborn’s, and weeping.
Incision. Hospital Penna, Buenos Aires, 2013. Photo by Kate Sedgwick.