Monday, November 18, 2013

The way of grief

Here follows the opening of my chapter in Eric Miller's book, Stories of Complicated Grief: A critical anthology.

There are many more chapters written by others that are well worth reading.

Twenty years ago when I was still young, I stood under the shower one morning and found a pea-sized lump in my left breast. I had soaped myself down as usual and with my right hand I pressed the skin against my rib cage to feel the texture of my otherwise smooth breast. I was in search of imperfections.
A friend had not long before been diagnosed with breast cancer and I was more diligent in my search than usual. Only that night I had dreamed of my friend’s gaping breast cut open by a surgeon’s knife. I took it as an omen.
‘It’s probably nothing, but it feels a bit fibrous.’ I imagine the doctor did not want to alarm me. ‘Best to get it looked at.’ It took a few anxious days before my next appointment.
‘This won’t hurt a bit,’ the specialist said, ‘ just like a mosquito bite’. He pushed a long silver needle into my breast above the lump.
A mosquito bite? Clearly no mosquito had ever bitten this surgeon before otherwise he would have known not to lie to me. On a scale of one to ten – toothache being one, childbirth ten – I rate this pain from my memory today, at seven. But it was gone in a flash. The surgeon peeled off a pink bandaid to cover the drip of blood from the pinprick hole he left behind.
The results came back negative but still, ‘to be certain we should take that lump out,’ the surgeon said. ‘I might have missed the growth itself.’
The night before the day of the knife, I looked at my breasts in the mirror. I had a mixed relationship with them. They were the love of my babies’ lives but they stirred up unfathomable and ambivalent feelings in me. They were not however available for serious wounding. I woke from the anaesthetic without pain, still groggy from the drugs. The surgeon visited before my discharge.
‘All fine,’ he said and used an unrepeatable word, which when translated into layman’s terms means a benign fatty deposit. The white bandage held both breasts firm and hugged my ribcage. I was mummified. ‘Keep the bandage on for a week. Cover it with plastic in the shower. I’ll be able to take the stitches out then.’
In twenty years the scar has faded but it remains for me to see, a tiny junction on the left side of my left breast. ‘There is something peculiarly distressing about the first wound on new skin’, writes AS Byatt in her book, Still Life (1985, p. 157). And so it was for me – this scar, this wound, this mark on my breast. But as they say, I should be grateful, it could have been far worse.
I have other scars that are not so visible. They exist beneath the line of my skin, etched into my mind. These are the scars of trauma and grief, the complicated difficulties that have beset me from my earliest days. These are also the childhood scars that steered my vocation and later joined to form other scars through further traumatic experience. That is the way with grief. It becomes a scar, a hard inflexible stretch of skin, which takes the place of healthy tissue, the body’s attempt at healing itself. But scar tissue looks different. It is paler and more dense. There is a limited blood supply available and therefore less movement and circulation and in cases where there is too much scarring, it can block otherwise healthy functioning. So, too, when grief appears to have sealed over, when the initial trauma is past, the area of the wound or loss becomes less flexible. If we are to avoid such hardening, our grief must be worked through over time. 


Elizabeth said...

As always, I want to read more, Elisabeth. Your writing is crystal clear and evocative. Congratulations on having it included in this anthology. Is it available for purchase in the United States?

Elisabeth said...

Hi Elizabeth
Thanks for your kind words.

For American distribution see:

River said...

I had a similar fatty lump and my doctor just said keep an eye on it, if it changes come back. It never did change, but one day it just wasn't there anymore. Reabsorbed by the body I suppose.

Jim Murdoch said...

Scars, eh? I have four than I’m aware of and being a hirsute bugger none are visible. The first I got was when I was about three. Someone threw a rock at me in the street and cut me across my eyebrow. The second was self-inflicted and in my sleep would you believe? I don’t know how I managed it but I woke up one morning with a pain in my wrist. Someone I’d managed to draw a fingernail along it and I was bleeding and the cut was deep enough that it left a scar. The last two a doctor was to blame for, a little Ethiopian chappie (the blackest man I’ve even met) with a love of classical music. Leonard Cohen has a good quote about scars: “Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh. It is easy to display a wound, the proud scars of combat. It is hard to show a pimple.” He has a point up to a point. When I was in America on our day trip to San Francisco I bought some books for the plane. One was by Sherril Jaffe with the great title Scars Make Your Body More Interesting and Other Stories. The title story is tiny and not really worth reproducing; the best thing about it is the title. I suppose they are conversation pieces, scars. As soon as anyone gets to see a scar they can’t help but want to know its history. I suppose you should be grateful you have yours—that one at least—tucked away in your bra or maybe not. It’s not as if having a lump removed is a source of shame as if you were to blame in some way or maybe you were; it’s your body so who else would be to blame?

The first scar I ever saw was on my dad. He had exploratory surgery on his stomach and that left a scar. My mother had three caesarean sections but I don’t think I ever saw the scar. When I think of scars the first thing that comes to my mind are emotional ones. There are plenty of those going around. I have a dozen poems that include the word ‘scar’ but this is the best example:


      I circumcised my heart for her.
      It lay bare and bled for days.
      But after a while it turned hard.

      I still said those familiar things
      because I'd always said them and

      one day I said them to you
      but I don't know if they're true.

       (For M.)

      26 February 1987

It’s a poem about going through the motions. The romantic in me has always been disappointed by love. It still disappoints but that’s only because I had unrealistic expectations to start off with. I felt the same about sex the first time. I remember exactly how I felt after having intercourse for the first time: It was nice but … was that it? And it was nice, loving actually, gentle but it was nothing like what I’d read about. Was this what all the fuss was about? Surely not. Well, I think love’s like that and happiness. You shouldn’t believe what you read. The na├»ve boy inside me—and he’s still there albeit battered senseless—expected to fall in love and that was it and I was really let down—let down by love, by my notion of love—when it all fell to pieces the first time and then within months here I was saying the same things to someone else and then there was a someone else and a someone else and another someone else and I’m not saying I didn’t love them all but they’re right, you never forget your first love and there’s no love like that first love and it’s a crying shame that so few first loves aren’t one and only loves … like in the books.

PhilipH said...

Beautifully written piece.

I could feel the pain of the needle piercing your flesh; your fear was painful too.

All's well ... better safe than sorry.

ellen abbott said...

If he was going to take it out regardless seems like he could have saved you the unnecessary procedure.

Anonymous said...

Very recently had occasion to 'tend the wound'. Again. The grieving for the child one was supposed to have been, the paralysis it causes.