Saturday, October 09, 2010

What do you do, if you don’t mark your body?

I don’t want a tattoo. At least, I don’t think I do. But I’ve been thinking about the idea for awhile.

In the friends-I-never-get-to-see category, there’s someone here this weekend whose tattoo I’d only seen on Facebook. I asked to see it in real life. His wife jumped on it: “With what you’ve been through, you should totally get one.”

Wow. I wonder why that’s the go-to celebration? It absolutely is. When I had my cancer surgery two years ago, I thought of getting a cartilage piercing on my ear near the surgery site. I didn’t, because the scars are sacred enough. And I didn’t want to have to take metal jewelry out of sensitive places, for future scans.

K said, “Get a tattoo.” What she really meant was, “Hallow your body.” I get the connection; really I do. I’ve thought along those lines myself. But I have enough exposure to needles right now. And there isn’t a design I really want.

I called A this morning and we chatted about it. She doesn’t like the idea. But she said, “If there were a universal symbol for cancer survivor...” She nailed it. I’d mark my body in solidarity, in a New York second. I’d probably draw it on myself in Sharpie, and wear it around right now. But there isn’t one.

There’s the black ribbon for melanoma awareness, but I have no connection with that symbol at all. I’ve been thinking. If you have breast cancer, you can choose to be obvious or not afterwards, depending on how radical your surgery was and what you want to do. My scars are mostly where nobody will see. And for many of us, after the hair grows back (I’ve been leaving mine everywhere I go for two months, but it only looks thin even to me when it’s wet), there are no obvious physical signs.

What we have is community around the newly diagnosed. We have our stories. Two and a half years ago, shellshocked and disbelieving, I hung up the phone after my doctor called me. I turned to my community—seminarians, teachers and blog readers—and announced how terrified and helpless I felt. People were there for me in whatever ways they could be. And then I ran into a classmate in the parking lot. She said to me, “I had breast cancer eleven years ago.”

It was this:
“Oh, shit.”
“Been there. Let’s talk.”

I tell my own story all the time. Not because I either need help or am giving it, but because I’m living it right now. My friends imagine what I’m going through, and they care, so I tell them. I actually like it when people ask me questions. I get to talk about it. That also helps me process.

I can answer deeply, or not:
“I haven’t seen you in ages. I don’t write, but I read everything. How are you?”
“Fine right now. Treatment’s working. I get to be happy being alive.”

I don’t need mentoring through this, anymore. And I’m in the middle of it, so I can say to someone (or a group, like over my birthday weekend), “I know what this is like, and here’s what helps me through it.” I’m not yet cleanly on the other side.

If I live into normalcy long enough—by that I mean get up and go about my day, don’t throw up and don’t think about cancer—I will be like D when she met me that day in the parking lot. “You’re new. I know you’re scared. Let’s take a walk.” Or like Margaret, who met me online then and who still walks with me from the opposite coast. She said she doesn’t self-identify as a survivor very often anymore. But obviously she does, when people (like me) need her to. I’m at terms with what I’ve been through. I know what could be ahead of me—either health for a year or two or ten, or getting to be old. I’m more emotionally ready to be hit again with disease. I can do that moment in the doctor’s office. Long life is the great unknown to me.

Let me qualify what I said. I don’t need mentoring through crisis. I think I do, for finding my way back into life. But it’s not hard to find people. That’s just what happens. That’s what this community does. I tell my story; someone meets me with theirs.

If I live long enough, I’ll get to be one of them. And I think I’m figuring this out. If there were a physical, obvious sign that I could wear forever, I would do it. I want to be there for people when they’re looking for someone like me. But none of us ever do that. What D did in the parking lot was look perfectly normal, while she showed me her scrapbook from Mars.

Of course she came back different. But that was clear in the sacredness of what she did for me. Not in the shape of her chest. I’d have never known, except she told me.

If there were something like the pink triangle for cancer survivors, I’d get the ink. There isn’t. There’s no instant obviousness. We come out in relationship. We come out in story. It’s the way you wear it, on the inside.

I’m not done with this yet, but I’ve typed long enough. This is giving me a key, something to chew on for however long I get to. It’s another way of phrasing the question, “Who will I be now?”

I have questions along a side trail, about how to be in relationship with my post-cancer body itself—but I need to walk with them longer before I can get to the first beginning of that.


Chandnijani said...

At the biannual Transplant Games, in which all athletes have been the recipients of life saving solid organ or bone marrow transplants, Larry Hagman always is part of the opening ceremony. He's getting old and crotchety but he's also one of the most visible organ recipients out there.

He always does this thing -- he says "show your badges of honor, show your scares" and then he raises up his shirt and shows the trademark "mercedes-benz" shaped scar of a liver recipient.

My husband and his fellow recipients always show their scars too, amid laughter and tears.

There isn't a symbol for being a recipient, but there is one for donation awareness -- the "Donate Life" symbol in brilliant blue and green. Dh wants one so badly he can taste it -- but one thing they tell recipients is NO TATTOOS on your immunosuppressed body. He may get one anyway. He "gets" what you are saying here, I think.


Kirstin said...

I'd like to meet him. And for that matter, you.

it's margaret said...

What do you do if you don't mark your body?

Yeppa --let your little light shine girlfriend! And don't hide it under a basket!!!

(I too thought of a tattoo --a big dragon... but then decided the three I had were enough... three? you might say? Yes, the little round dots that were the mark to guide the radiation therapist.... tattoos to save my life and guide others to save my life. Now, if you can get a tattoo that would do that, DO IT!!!)

Joel, yeah, that one. said...

What do you do if you don't mark your body?

You do have a mark: "You are Marked as Christ's Own Forever." Period. And if YOU don't see it, Others DO. On some it is faint, but on others it begins to glow 'til it turn to FIRE. There is a martyrdom of Life as a Christian that we never talk about anymore. Some are forced into it. For them, they "bear the beams of Love" 'til the become Love.

Any idiot can get drunk or cutsey and walk in to a tattoo parlor and get a tattoo that is gonna like like "H" on a 60 year old flabby piece of body-part one day.

The scars of a real life are redeeming scars that shine after, through and eternally in the Resurrection, in Glory! Glory in the Marks you are wearing. They are not yours alone! Shut up joel.

Kirstin said...

Margaret and Joel, I love you both. And you both gave me shivers.

Fire... yes, I can see it.

Bill said...

I was diagnosed with melanoma earlier this year. It was later "excised," I think they said. Given the number of family members I have lost to this disease, I read your blog as a primer for what is to come.

Get the ink, Sister, and keep writing.

Kirstin said...

Bill, thank you.

I didn't know you were there, but you are so much the reason why I do this. Thank you for making yourself visible. Thank you for being in community with me.

I've put you in my reader. We'll walk together.

susankay said...

Kirstin -- this blog is your tattoo. In 12 step groups we talk about doing "the next right thing" When a physical tattoo is your next right thing, it will be time to do that.

kat said...

I come back to this example all the time, so maybe I've shared it already (perhaps when I saw you in Sac??)... forgive me if I have. But I heard many years ago that when a valuable dish or bowl was broken in a Japanese household it was repaired with gold. In this way the repair became a part of the design, rather than something that was hidden. The break was part of the history of the piece, and it was made beautiful in the process of being made whole again.

I think a tatt would be a bit like dabbing extra gold around the dish, just for show. Perhaps the universal symbol of cancer survivor is the sharing that takes place between two people. If I were newly diagnosed I might not be brave enough to approach you, were you visibly marked, and say, "But what's going to happen to me?" But when you SEE me, meet me where I am, then I will trust you... and my trust will be rewarded, because you will offer me a glimpse of the scary places and how to get through them. I would need both, I reckon. You, of course, must tell me if I have it wrong.

Much love, my friend.

Kirstin said...

Kat, that's a gorgeous example. I'd never heard it before.

I totally get what you're saying. Thank you.

Much, much love.

Cathy said...

I really liked what Joel said - you ARE marked as Christ's own forever. Can't visually see it but your light shines forth in ways that you are truly a gift to us, from your readers to those you know in person. That mark is right there on your forehead. Feel it. Know it. Live it. And that is what you are doing now. And for that you are a blessing.

Kirstin said...

Thank you, Cathy. I hear that, and it always amazes me.

Caminante said...

And add to that incredible indelible mark of God's love some cinnamon-scented olive oil that might leave a pink cross on your forehead.... You are marked and sealed as Christ's own, God's beloved, for ever.


The comments here are so thought-provoking and I think they are all on-target that what follows is perhaps way too mundane... forgive me if it is.

Each piercing in my left (deaf) ear (beyond the initial matching ones)
represent a life milestone such as finishing CPE, getting my Ph.D., getting my M.Div., hitting ten years of ordination. I keep thinking of getting a scallop shell tattoo on my left foot as a reminder of the pilgrimages I have taken but also for Naomi who taught me so much in the last year of her life. Haven't done it but it sure rattles around in my brain.

When the time is right, may you know.

Meanwhile, prayers, prayers.

Kirstin said...

Susankay: the next right thing, I like that.

Caminante, the comments here are blowing my mind. You'd told me about your piercings before. If you get the tattoo for Naomi, let me know so I can pray there with you.

Wow, everyone. Thank you. Love to all.

Dennis Pyritz, RN said...

This was an interesting post. I plan to republish it on Friday as a Guest Post at Being Cancer Network. I will include two links to your blog as well as a link to the original post. You should see an increase in traffic as we are getting 200-300 visits a day. Keep up the good work - it seems that doing good work is a vocation for you.
Take care, Dennis

Forty Pound Sack said...

Ya know, I never thought I would get a tattoo but since my diagnosis, I’ve thought about it. I’ve also been asked, several times, what I’ll get when all this is behind me. Right now, though, the only tattoo in my future is the one I’ll get in 8 days from my radiologist.