This week I turn my radiation tattoos into small stars, all four of then, reclaim a choice I didn’t make into one that I did, remember the woman I met once with that tree circling her sternum. Though mine had only been Stage 1 and hers was worse, our cancers were the same, that kind that strikes in a way at some part of what it means to be woman, and I ashamed of that, the way my vanity was tied to the physical body in which others saw me.
When I look in the mirror these days, it is in a shape I don’t entirely recognize, lopsided, dueling scars, extra weight. I want to not be vain but I am, because when they hadn’t wanted me they had always wanted this, that one man, tracing the shape of my face with his hand, remarking on my perfect eyebrow, the other’s hand in mine as though they fit, the one remarking on my hip in near dark, telling me how he had wanted this for years, from the moment he had seen me sitting in the yard of his friend’s cabin, laughing. There was a kind of freedom in the first years after my husband died, of being only a body people had wanted, even if I did not take them up on it, of being something that could exist without feeling too deeply in the years where the only thing I was capable of feeling was grief.
I dream of the one man often when I have cancer, think of his girlfriend sitting beside his hospital bed after his own. When I have cancer, it is in Covid and there are no visitors allowed. I get dropped off in the parking lot for my treatments and surgeries and picked up there after. No one who loves me is holding my hand and wishing I won’t die. I wish it instead for myself, because I do not want to leave the small boy alone. If I am all he is to have then I want the universe to give me at least the years until his adulthood. I wish for my life, even if mostly I am wishing it for him.
I remember one night in hours past dark, standing in the bathroom brushing my hair before bed, that one man looking on. The way he paused, told me I should wear my hair that way more often to appeal to men. It takes me five years to mean what I say to him that night, that my looks are not the problem, to believe that I should be loved because I was generous and funny, smart and truthful, loyal to a fault.
To believe that I should be loved even now, in this, my new scarred body, its shape lopsided, soft, the way I learn to love this new scarred body, the way it had survived, after all.
Its brilliant heart, always full of stars.