As I Am
While my friends pick out their clothes and laugh in the hallway, make-up already done, I stand in my freshman dorm bathroom, staring at myself—at my scar, a light twisted kiss across the front of my throat. As I preen to go out, it’s actually the first I’ve thought about my scar in years. For the first time—I’m not sure what possesses me—I smooth concealer over it. When I smooth on a little more, the scar still shows through slightly, but I take a few steps back from the mirror, and when I look only at my face, where everyone else will look during conversation, I look normal, at least conventionally. Curious. Though my scar isn’t something I think about regularly, I’ve never known myself without it. I don’t remember the chicken pox I had at age one, the case severe enough that it trailed down my throat and caused a cyst. I don’t remember the resultant surgery at fifteen months old. But I do remember the recurring abscesses. I remember the dressings.
* * *
I’m four-years-old. The doctors at Children’s Hospital in Columbus are looking, again, for the source of infection. Mom’s RN hand takes up medical scissors and the brown bottle of NuGauze. She unscrews the lid and with tweezers pulls out a long tape of sterile gauze a quarter inch wide, cutting off about a six-inch strip. As I lay on my back on the kitchen table, in the Ohio morning light, my dad presses one palm on my chest and the other across my forehead.
“Hold still, Cait,” my mother says as she lowers the long, dry strand into the pocket I cannot see, packing it full. I know this pain well enough now that I don’t cry out anymore. But every nerve inside me is shrieking by the time mom raises the tweezers away.
My dad lifts his hands and pets my temples with his thumbs as he kisses my forehead and tells me how well I’m doing. Mom squirts a curdle of Neosporin on a square of gauze and gently places it over the packed wound. She holds it there while they sit me up and take a long roll of gauze to wrap around my neck, one, two, three times, before cutting it and taping it off.
“Cait, you’re not gonna eat the toothpaste, are you?”
That night while they unwrap me, my skin breathes a sigh with each layer removed. When Mom peels away the gauze square, it sticks a little to my skin, and the NuGauze unexpectedly yanks out with the square. Mom apologizes, kisses my cheek, and dad hugs me as she gently pulls out the rest of the yellowed NuGauze strip and gets the scissors and bottle.
When the next morning comes, we begin again.
* * *
My neck is swollen out like a bullfrog’s. It’s a delicate, purple bubble of elastic skin that—if it were solid—I could rest my chin on. It itches with infection, and I sink down in the bathtub to let the hot water rise up over it. My skin is sensitive enough that I’m almost uncomfortable with the water lapping slightly over my throat, against my chin. But the heat and steam soak through me, and I sigh, sinking down. I wait until the water is nearly cold before I climb out. And when I look at myself in the mirror, a weak spot in the skin gives way, and I begin to drain.
* * *
Another surgery at Children’s Hospital. I pull the IV along side myself as I walk along the backs of the waiting room couches, singing. Mom and my brother Coleman should be here soon to visit. Coleman isn’t allowed in my hospital room, so we play out here; mom will tell me years later that I’m in the highly contagious ward.
“Skidda marinky dinky dink—” I walk with a bounce along my balance beam, my right arm swinging with my march. “—Skidda marinky do—” I point to dad. “III looove you.” He supervises but knows I won’t miss a step.
* * *
It’s surgery number eight or nine. I’ve been coming to Children’s for a week or so at a time, about every other month, for more than a year. The dressings are still between the operations. I know that when I return home from this surgery, mom will lean over me with a syringe full of Merthiolate. I don’t have the same deep pocket that I did, so mom uses Merthiolate to clean over the outside edges of the wound, using the syringe needle to keep her aim concise. I’m still afraid she’ll stick me with the needle and cry sometimes when she looms over me, no matter how much she reassures me she won’t.
My neck is swollen out like a bullfrog’s. It’s a delicate, purple bubble of elastic skin that—if it were solid—I could rest my chin on.
Now, the nurse comes in to my hospital room and pricks my left index finger and presses what looks like a clear swizzle stick against my skin. I watch it fill up with my blood like a rising thermometer. She fills another, then wraps a blue band-aid with yellow ducks around my fingertip. I know that after my surgery she’ll do it again for them to compare my blood work. Then both index fingers will have happy little ducks on them, and the weight of the Gameboy will make them feel pinched and uncomfortable. But mom or dad will read to me. And I’ll have a three step radius from the IV to dance.
The next nurse is coming in now with a tiny cup of pre-anesthetics, and the fluid goes down my throat thick and bitter. As the half-hour before surgery floats by, my body feels lighter, and I’m overcome with giddiness. I don’t know where the giggles come from, but they float away from me in peels.
Alice in Wonderland is on the TV mounted high in the corner of my room, and the smile of the Cheshire cat floats in the darkness. My face peels into the same wide grin, and I fall into hysterics again as he sings.
I’m on my feet on the mattress and my dad’s hands catch me before I meet the tile.
Before I know it, the half-hour has gone, and a nurse has rolled the transfer bed into my room and lifts me from my bed to it. We’re only in pre-op for a short time where I choose the scent of the mask they use to put me under—orange. As I’m wheeled into surgery, I can faintly hear my parents behind, maybe chuckling, saying something about what I may be like when I get to college—whatever that means.
* * *
I’m about six, waking in the recovery room—surgery ten? eleven?—and I want my parents. A nurse who sees me waking greets me with soft, cool hands. My wrapped neck throbs, and my muscles wince, stiff from drug-induced sleep, as she plucks me out of the bed. I’m afraid the IV will tug at my wrist. I feel uneasy in this stranger’s embrace, but then she sits with me folded in her arms and rocks me with a wet washcloth on my forehead. In the bay of sick and crying children, I no longer feel alone.
* * *
“Skidda marinky dinky dink—”
* * *
They’re hydrating me through only the IV this time. The doctors are afraid eating will rupture the internal sutures so soon after surgery, and I can’t eat for three days. I’m on day two and with my senses heightened I begrudge the sweet smelling meals from the children’s rooms around me. It’s my dad’s turn to stay with me this time; my parents make sure I’m never alone. He occupies me with Gem coloring books, and he reads to me until I fall asleep and nap. Time grinds forward, but soon it’s nightfall. My dad emerges from the bathroom, making his way over to the cheap, plastic-cased couch.
“What are you eating?” I ask.
“I’m not eating anything,” he replies, “I just brushed my teeth.”
“Oh,” I say, “Can I brush my teeth too?”
I feel uneasy in this stranger’s embrace, but then she sits with me folded in her arms and rocks me with a wet washcloth on my forehead. In the bay of sick and crying children, I no longer feel alone.
I push myself from the bed and am halfway to the bathroom when he asks:
“Cait, you’re not gonna eat the toothpaste, are you?” I say nothing as I turn swiftly on my heel and climb back into bed.
The bowl of chicken broth I receive a day or two later will be one of the most succulent meals of my life.
* * *
Eight-years-old. I’m sitting at lunch with my second grade class. My turtleneck covers the fresh bandages around my neck that’s been opened again after two years. Number sixteen. Across from me, “Derek Hale” is eating an orange, and it reminds me of the scented mask the surgeons use to put to me under—the scent I always choose. I remark that I don’t like the smell of Derek’s orange because of how it reminds me. He presses a section of peel to his teeth for an orange mocking grin and makes taunting “mmm” sounds. This is the first and will be the only time anyone’s ever teased me about my experience. They’re always just curious. I’m crushed. But I smile, shrug, and finish my lunch.
* * *
I’m taking a week off from fourth grade to have my first, and what will be my only, cosmetic surgery. “Laura Redd,” my surgeon for the majority of my operations—now one of my most beloved friends—is going to remove the skin tags at both ends of my scar that my first surgeon created when he was digging around for the source of infection. I hate the two swellings of skin that emphasize my dark purple scar, that emphasize the way the twisted leer stretches across my neck where the rest of the skin tissue was scraped out. When they wheel me into surgery, I’m happy to be going in on my terms.
As I get ready for school post-surgery, I select a scoop-neck top. My classmates look at the stitches and gauze strips, but they only tell me they’re glad to have me back.
A week later, I’m trick or treating, and some people passing out candy think the strips of gauze are part of my witch costume. I like that.
* * *
I’m eleven, and there’s that familiar itch of pain I haven’t felt in four years. I’m sitting in Laura’s waiting room with my mom, staring at the same old picture of trolls dancing in a circle with dark and wild hair. Even though Laura hasn’t seen me yet, I know she’s going to schedule me for another surgery.
After they call me in and Laura assesses me with her gentle hands—Laura who has been so kind to me over the years—they schedule me in while I pick out a Tootsie Pop like I always did. I’ll realize years later that the surgery they schedule me for, number eighteen, is my last. I choose a cherry flavored Pop, but only because they offer, and I want to be polite. I’ve never liked Tootsie Pops.
* * *
I stare at the foreign image of myself in the dorm bathroom, make-up attempting to conceal the faded scar. I neither like nor dislike this version of myself. I don’t feel bitter that this is how I should look. I don’t feel happy or more acceptable with this ruse as reality. I just study what could’ve been. I don’t consciously make up my mind about how I feel, but I step back up to the mirror, wash off the make-up, and walk out.