I’ve been avoiding you for ages. It’s not you – it’s me. (I know, they all say that). I’m a bit squeamish, or rather, used to be. But this letter is long overdue. I want to say thank you.
The first time I looked at you properly, trying to take it all in – I kept thinking “you poor sod”. It was a glance in a hospital mirror – my first unaccompanied excursion to the bathroom for a couple of weeks. Now I look at you with a sense of wonder. A history told in scars and subtle changes in shape. The story has changed over these past six or so years and now, with another scan due, I wonder – what next?
I stare at you while cleaning my teeth. What else am I going to do in the next two minutes? The mirror is directly in front of the basin. It’s hard to look away.
I start at the top. It’s been 2 years now; there’s no scar to see (it’s across my back) but the left collarbone gives the game away. It sits proud – the surrounding area has subsided leaving a deep depression, a sink hole bridged by this white arch. I puff out my chest but only my right lung inflates. The left seems reluctant to get involved; a little movement near the diaphragm just to show willing. I was at a party a few weeks ago and a woman said; “your left shoulder is lower than your right”. That’s the first time anyone’s mentioned it. She didn’t mean it unkindly but it’s made me more self-conscious – on a recent holiday I slip in and out of the hotel pool when no one’s about. You were not embarrassed – but I was.
I move the toothbrush and lower my gaze. The ‘Mercedes Scar’ – a joke beloved of all liver surgeons. It must be part of their training. The large inverted ‘Y’ is now beginning to fade but there was a time when it was red and raw, the staples like a child’s drawing of a railway line. I still marvel at how quickly the liver re-grew.
I shift my balance and lean against the bathroom wall, supporting myself with my left hand. That always makes the chest look worse – like something from a freak show. Just visible on the right hand side of my waist is a small scar. We’re close now to where it all began, six years ago. For nearly two years an ileostomy bag hung from this spot, a patient receptacle for all you could throw at it, while the wounds from that very first attempt to evict the unwanted visitor slowly healed.
The buzzer on my toothbrush sounds and this two-minute tour is up. Writ large in the mirror is a bowel cancer road map, for those who can read the signs. The steady progress North by an insidious traveller.
I’ve stopped feeling sorry for you. You’re tough – much tougher than me. I’m the one who has the doubts, the bad dreams, the tears. You just get on with it. You got me to work each day, and then got me up the stairs at night. Slower now perhaps, but still plodding on, nevertheless. While I lay awake worrying, you just tick-over. And each night I’m left wondering the same thing; how do you do it? You are amazing – thank you.