Begin at the scalp near the part on the left side where all truths reside, where the gray is camouflaged by the careful application of chemicals. To know the original color you must go back decades, to age thirty-five or earlier, before the age of perms and big hair, before the experiments with semi-permanent tints and blonde streaks from Sun-in. Flip through the old photographs. Do you see the dark brown hues of your long, straight locks that swing just above your hips? Your mother called that glowing color chestnut, a shade impossible to replicate from a bottle.
Travel over the forehead, past the fixed dent in the brow, down to the ears where each lobe holds a single hole, only one, products of an impulsive act during your last year of adolescence when you walked into a kitschy, hippie store in Philadelphia and asked to be pierced because you could not wear clip-ons without pain. Years later, when your own eighteen-year-old daughter comes home with a tiny heart tattooed on the inset of her ankle, you hear your own mother’s words spew forth: “How could you scar yourself that way?”
But you know now, in your wiser years, that scars are testaments to suffering and triumph; they speak of survival, not folly. Note the crescent smile above your pelvis, described by your OB affectionately as a “bikini cut,” as though you were ordering a steak serving from the surf and turf menu, the result of two life-threatening pregnancies three years apart, requiring two emergency C-sections, both before you hit the magical age of thirty. Another tiny horizontal line just below your right breast, less than two inches long, was once the entrance for an emergency gall bladder removal, a mere three months after the second emergency C-section. The surgeon thrilled at your slender frame and bragged, “It was the smallest incision I’ve ever made to remove a gallbladder.” Six months after this, the FDA will approve laparoscopic surgery for the same procedure. These scars whisper of close calls, of multiple dances with death, and yet, you survived. You endure.
Go back up from the belly and breast to the eyes and gaze deeply into the mirror at the blue-green irises looking back at you. They glitter, refracting prisms of light, but these lenses are artificial, implanted by choice, not necessity. For most of your life, you wore coke-bottle glasses, unable to see details of leaves on trees, words on highway signs, or the distance between car and curb without their corrective refraction. You removed the glasses to read, holding the text inches away from your face, and you wondered what it would be like to apply makeup without guessing. Then, in your fifties, you were granted the gift of new sight; existing lenses were broken and extracted, replaced by implants; a laser reshaped your eye, correcting the astigmatism. During the procedure, you remained awake, and the doctor said, “Talk to me.” Giggling from the euphoria of drugs and startling new vision, you said, “What color are my eyes?” He laughed. You drive now without glasses and read with cheap magnifying lenses from Walgreen’s, for alas, not all gifts are free. Your new eyes still require a minor correction for close work, but you can wear stylish sunglasses and laugh when you lose them; you can read the road signs long before your passengers; and last night, when you looked at the dark line above the doorframe, you realized it was not a shadow at all but a layer of grime. Some things are best unseen.
Enter the mouth, where wars have been raged with dentists. Your narrow jaw line does not accommodate a full set of teeth happily. Four wisdom teeth crowd the back gums, and many a dentist has urged you to pull them, but they suffer no infection and no decay, so they remain. When you were eight, an angry orthodontist removed your braces, an act you welcomed, simply to escape the nightly agony of inserting rubber bands and tightening the screws. When you are fifteen, another dentist will tell you that the incisor on the right side has died and been absorbed because other teeth moved in to occupy its assigned place. You will be in your early twenties when an earnest dentist offers to “even things out” by filing down the left incisor to match the right side, but that plan will be abandoned after a few visits and lapsed insurance. At the ripe old age of twenty-three, you earn your first crown when you break a molar while chewing ice. A dental student takes on the task of shaping the protective covering over the damaged tooth, and you sit through numerous sessions of measurements, moldings, and adjustments while he forges a perfect fit. That crown remains firmly fixed in place thirty years later.
On your left palm, placed precisely midpoint between the heart line and the head line, a tiny dark spot reminds you of the pencil stab you received in third grade from Tommy Stetson when he called you stick girl. “That’s how little boys flirt,” your mother explained, as she daubed Mercurochrome on the wound. Her statement made you wonder if love would always be painful. And if he had moved the pencil toward the pad of the palm, striking you in the life line, breaking the cord of longevity, would your high-risk pregnancies have ended differently, perhaps with your own death?
It is true genetic markers carry the secrets of our fate. When you look at your family history, you see that the big fear for many, cancer, is not a serious threat to you, appearing only rarely on the ancestry chart. Your paternal grandmother died from breast cancer that was diagnosed too late, and your father, who had once been a smoker, had both kidney and bladder cancer, but he did not die from them. He survived for years with only one kidney, only to expire from congestive heart failure in his late 80s, another disease related to smoking. You don’t smoke, never have.
To locate the genetic bomb that ticks off your hours, you must peel back the skull and examine the brain, a place you do not want to go. You remember a cold spring morning when you sat next to your mother on the couch while she pulled out a wad of credit card bills from her large purse. “Someone has been using my Visa card,” she said. “Every month they spend twice as much. I’ll never pay this off.” But she still had the credit card in her wallet. Did a stranger steal the number? Reluctantly, you agreed to sort through the mess, thinking of the past year when your mother had become increasingly paranoid, complaining about items missing from her house, people playing tricks on her, students in her class lying to her. Your mother, who had always received accolades for her teaching, was given a bad performance review the year before. Your mother, who called you at random times of day and night to tell you stories about past events that made no sense. When you challenged her, she cried and insisted the stories were true.
Carefully, you laid out the receipts, studying the numbers, going back in order from the previous summer where it all began, from June to July to August. The July receipt showed a balance of zero with a credit of $23.00. Another zero balance on the August receipt with a credit of $46.00. On the September receipt, a credit of $92.00 with a balance of zero. Each month, the credit had doubled; your mother had been overpaying her bill. When you pointed this out to her, she stared at you doubtfully. “Are you sure someone isn’t using my card?” Your mother, who kept the books for the family business for decades, who could work complex equations in her head, no longer understood the difference between debit and credit. It will be another four years and a forced retirement before her growing confusion is given a name: Alzheimer’s disease.
You trade in words and language, in the development of the imagination. The telling of stories sustains you, feeds you. Once the first place winner in your junior high spelling bee, you now look up words like “consecutively,” no longer trusting your memory. You double-check the meaning of “respectively” and “respectfully” because they look and sound so much alike. When you hear yourself substitute one word for another because you cannot recall the precise choice you meant, an echo of your mother’s forgetfulness reverberates, and you panic. Embarrassed by your gaffe, you laugh it off, but a tiny bell rings in your head. Is this it? Is this the turn toward dementia? Your husband tells you, “The words come back to you. They’re just not always on the tip of your tongue. It’s a sign of normal aging, not Alzheimer’s.” You nod, eager to agree, but still, you worry. How long before the synapses refuse to connect?
Close the skull and leave the brain, for the future is too dire to ponder. Instead, move down the torso and brush your right hand across your belly, where the concave has become the convex. Post-menopause, your shape changed quickly. The slender frame the gallbladder surgeon so admired exists no more. At your last doctor’s visit, you patted the paunch and asked her, “What can I do to get rid of this?” She gave you an answer you didn’t want to hear: “The abdominal muscles are damaged. That’s what comes of two emergency C-sections. It all hangs out.”
Although not fully committed, you embarked on an exercise regimen a few years ago. You attend a gym now, take walks when the weather allows, go to tai chi classes, and even attempt a few short, easy hikes. Dieting, however, is foreign to you. For most of your adult life, your 5′ 8″ body carried no more than 125 lbs. You ate sweets and high-caloric meals with abandon, fighting to keep the weight on. Stress or illness killed the appetite and dumped the pounds overnight. But hormones shifted, the metabolism slowed, and when you look at your naked body in the mirror, you curse the “bikini cut” that has doomed you to single-piece bathing suits with matronly skirts.
Your artistic mother passed on another genetic trait, one that would be lovely and haunting on canvas but not so attractive beneath your own skin. Raise the left leg and you’ll see the Gordian knot on the back calf just below the knee, a tangled twist of blue and purple veins, coiled like a nest of violet snakes. Your mother had them on the back of her left thigh, but your varicose veins have chosen to rise at a lower point on your limb. You suspect they come not only from your mother but also from long hours of sitting at a computer where you type out the words that haunt your thoughts.
Typing, always typing. Moving the cursor over the text on the screen with the mouse held loosely in your hand. Your devotion to the craft exacts a price, charging you with pain. Your hands and wrists hurt, almost all the time. Once, at the movie theater, a boy at the concession stand handed you a large drink. You reached for it, lifted it from the counter, and the cup slipped from your grasp. Your shock terrified you, for you never felt the cup in your hands, not once. Your fingers were numb, so weak they could not close around the cup’s circumference.
These, you know, are the consequences of your malady, of the constant repetition of keyboard entry and mouse work: carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition that swings from stabs of shooting pain in your fingers, wrists, and arms, to deadened nerves where you feel nothing at all. You fight the constant ache with Tylenol and frequent applications of Deep Heat. You compensate for the weakness by using pliers to open small lids. On the mornings when you awake with a tingling in your hands, you know you should be listening to the warnings, but you choose to go back to work by first squeezing a rubber ball again and again at your desk, hoping the exercise will bring back strength and feeling.
When you drum the fingers of your left hand on your desk, you experience no sensation at all in your fingertips. The crusty pads and calluses are not illness-borne but a consequence of years of practicing your instrument. The dark spot on your neck, the permanent imprint of a chinrest, is known as the “violinist’s hickey.” Your fingers have muscle memory. Like a confident spider, they dance up and down the fingerboard, knowing the clear distinction between D# and Eb for a string player. The notes vibrate in the jawbone, traveling through those wisdom teeth never pulled. You literally feel the correct intonation in your bones. Alas, you have not always been loyal; in fact, you have abandoned your violin for extended periods, but you always return, for you recognize that the act of playing inspires you and strengthens your memory. You desire music in your life in much the same way as you do chocolate—an addiction you do not want to kick.
Too much sitting is unhealthy, as your varicose veins will tell you, so rise from your desk and kick out your left leg, flex the left foot. Do you see the left big toe, the one you have decided not to hide from public view? At first glance, the toe’s surface appears to be rough, as though the toenail was scraped or scratched, but closer inspection reveals there is no nail. The now-missing nail caused its first grief two years after your last emergency C-section when toed shoes became unbearable to wear. The nail thickened, cut deeply into the sides of the toe, and you went barefoot or wore open-toed sandals to compensate. Your podiatrist explained the extreme in-growth was caused by physical trauma, perhaps a long-term consequence of that second life-threatening pregnancy. The body had turned against itself. He burned the nail away from both sides of the toe, telling you that it would still grow from the base to look like a normal nail. For a few months, you had relief, but the nail grew inward again with a ferocity that startled both you and the podiatrist, and he burned the sides away a second time, assuring you this treatment would solve the problem.
You were walking along a beach in Florida with your children when the toenail made its final assault. As your son and daughter flirted with the waves, darting in and out of the water, you limped barefoot on the hot sand. For months, you had been ignoring the discomfort, refusing to believe the toenail was again ingrown, but when a huge wall of water slammed down on your feet, burning your toe with salt and sand and pain, you knew it was time to return to the podiatrist. A third attempt, this time a surgery requiring local anesthesia, killed the toenail completely, leaving the skin exposed to the elements. Today, when friends talk about “manis and pedis,” you defer, for you have no left toenail to paint.
You part your dyed hair on the left side. Your left eye is dominant. Your left hand wears the pencil stab scar. Your fingertips on the left hand are hardened from decades of pressing into thin gut and steel strings. Your varicose veins swirl on the left leg, and the left big toe has no nail. Are you lopsided? You think not, for you write and eat with your right hand, but in a crisis, you could switch to the left, especially since the violin-trained fingers on the left are more dexterous than the slower fingers on the right. When the pain in your right hand becomes too great to maneuver the mouse, you move mouse and pad to the left of the keyboard and continue working, reversing the finger usage for the right-handed mouse: index finger presses the right-click button and second finger presses the left-click button. As long as you don’t think about the process, it works. Somewhat ambidextrous, you maintain a delicate balance between right and left, strength and weakness, focus and confusion.
Go back to the full-length mirror and remove your clothes. Stand before your reflection, fully exposed. This is your body, this map of scars, marks, and damage is your history, your personal story. When the last breath leaves you, when the mortician lays you out on his table to wash and prepare your body for burial, he will know who you are, what you have been. You have chosen to undergo this final rite because you remember the difficulty of dispersing your father’s ashes, the delays for more than a year after his death, the Rube Goldberg design sketched out on a paper napkin over glasses of wine to send his mortal remains through a hose out the visor window of a small plane. When the bag inside the urn slipped, spilling too much of your father at once, the tube clogged. Your father’s cremains swirled in a fog about the cabin of the plane, filling both your and the pilot’s lungs with his presence. Afterward, after the urn was emptied and the plane had landed, a Dustbuster sucked up what remained on the seats and cabin floor. And do not forget that the ashes of the beloved family dog stayed on a shelf in your master bedroom closet for years because no one could bear to part with him.
No, you have chosen burial to spare your family this trauma of ashes gone wrong. The mortician will wash your naked body with sterilizing chemicals, insert a tube into your neck to drain the blood and replace it with preservative. He will fluff your now gray hair around your face, apply color to your cheeks to make you appear healthy. Inside the mouth that has fought so many wars with dentists, he will stuff cotton, pushing wads of it up under the skin. Then he will tie the lips shut, shaping them into a grimace that could almost pass for a hesitant smile. He will dress you in clothing chosen by your surviving family members, most likely something in red or coral or teal or green, for those were your favorite and most flattering colors.
Once you are fully prepared for your last date and placed in the casket, your family and friends will come to say their final good-byes. After the service, a few of them will gather for food and comfort, sharing memories, and you hope there will be both tears and laughter. Your loved ones will come to visit your gravesite for a few years, perhaps, bringing flowers, pausing to talk to you or ask your advice (you were always very good about giving advice, even when it was unwanted), but eventually, they will move on, grow older, and die.
One day, a stranger will pass by your headstone and stop for a moment to rest in the shade of a once-scrawny tree now grown tall and full in the years after your death. Curious, the visitor may wipe away the dirt and debris to read these words engraved in the granite: “A life well-lived.”
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Diego Wyllie