Stretch

August 4, 2008 at 2:28 pm (Uncategorized)

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

(from “When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats)

I wasn’t thinking poetically when I caught sight of my belly and thighs in the mirror. I’ve written before about the tremendous amount of weight I’ve gained on my four-year course of prednisone, but I try not to think about the “new” me. And I certainly try to avoid looking at her. Me. The woman with a face bloated by corticosteriods and extra flesh, with a prednisone-induced buffalo hump on my back and a goiter that obscures my neck. I’ll apprize myself when I need to, say when I’m putting on make-up for a special occasion. But in these instances I keep focused on the component parts—my brows awaiting smoothing; the right color to accentuate my lips; the creamy smoothness of the concealer beneath my tired eyes—not on the whole of me.

Unfortunately, I’ve gotten stuck in front of the mirror lately. With my ankle injury, I can’t dart from the shower to the closet with nary a backward glance at my reflection, as I usually do. To make matters worse (and me even slower), I took a bad fall last week and came very close to breaking my knee cap. To say that I hobble would exaggerate my speed. I now creep, maybe inch. And in the process of doing so, I caught a look—which led to a full, horrified examination—of my flesh. The extra weight was the least of it. You can’t gain eighty-odd pounds and not notice new bulges and curves. No, what kept me entranced before my reflected shape were the stretch marks. They are etched into my pale skin like the representations of mountain ridges on topographic maps. There, down both sides of my torso, my thighs, my breasts, were enough raw, deep purple ridgelines to fill a map with the Andes, the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Sierras, and the Smokies.

I traced this new topography of myself. Where had these come from? Why did they hurt? I asked my new doctor, the Cincinnati Wizard, and even bashfully pulled up my shirt to show him the deepest, most painful ones on the right side of my stomach. “It’s the prednisone,” he said. “It thins this skin.” Was there anything I could do? Well, get off the prednisone. And try rubbing lanolin cream into them.

Jay wasn’t surprised by my stretch marks. While I had been running away from mirrors, he had seen me coming from the shower, changing clothes, and in bed. “How can you stand these?” I asked him, stifling a sob, while I silently resolved never to appear in anything other than a turtleneck and long pants in front of him unless it was utterly dark. Not dim, but black. Or, I could convert to fundamentalist Islam and wear the hijab. That would be even better than a turtleneck, which would only partially obscure my goiter. With the hijab, I could cover both the stretch marks and my moon face. His voice interrupted my inner pondering of whether I’d necessarily have to embrace the religion to get its clothes. “I love you,” he said. “You.” And the lump in my throat dissolved into a rainstorm of tears that washed down the new mountain ridges of my flesh.

I keep waiting for Jay to come to his senses and loathe me. After all, I’ve heard plenty of true tales about men abandoning their sick wives (one, two weeks after their honeymoon when she was diagnosed with lupus.) It’s not just that I’ve gotten fat, have stretch marks and disintegrating ligaments, a constant headache, and vertigo that literally topples me every other day or so. Nor is it that I’m unable to work, that my proud husband is forced to accept financial help from both our families while he works full-time and picks up contract work that keeps him up after midnight. It’s not simply that he does the yeoman’s work on caring for our four-year old son, who cannot be in daycare or preschool because my immune system is compromised and he’d bring home too many germs. It is Jay who rises early on the weekends to take Andrew on play dates, to the farmer’s market, to the library. It’s not that he perpetually turns down job offers for more lucrative, more interesting work in the private sector. He received one such proposition just last week from his dream firm. But moving would mean taking me away from the web of family and friends who prop me up when I am especially ill; also, no small law firm could cover my insurance costs. It’s not that we can’t travel abroad—return to Palau, backpack through China, or kayak down the Mekong River in Laos. Hell, I’m not even sure I can accompany him to Portland in a couple of weeks, for a mini-vacation close to home. It’s not that a hot date for us now is an hour spent quietly together while I get my chemotherapy.

Rather, it is all of these things distinct and taken together. Sarcoidosis has brought me a life I didn’t plan for, dream of, or want. It’s living, but I don’t always feel deeply alive. We’re not hiking through the towering peaks of Glacier National Park, or wending our way down the Pacific Crest Trail as we had hoped to do. We’re not raising a brood of kids and shepherding them through new places with us. Sarcoidosis has brought Jay this more limited life as well. A life where we must choose between chemotherapy (which might make me well) and future children (the toxic brew will likely leave me sterile). When I tell him all of this, when I try to apologize for what a mess I’ve made of our hopes and our dreams, he turns his eyes on me and shushes me. At these times, his eyes are like polished stones left out in the sun all day to gather warmth. “This—is—not—the—life—you wanted,” I sob and shudder into his shoulder. “No, but it’s the life I have with you,” he says, again and again. “And that is all the life I want.”

Jay is not a saint. Nor am I. We quarrel like every other couple over the ridiculous minutiae of our days—the thermostat in the winter, whether or not to run the air conditioner in the car in the summer. Both he and I can be total jerks. Like everyone else we try to find ways to be together, as a couple and as a family, in ways that are meaningful. The obstacles are perhaps a bit greater for us, since there are frequently days when my head hurts so badly I cannot even turn over in bed, much less get out of it. I try to apologize for this, but again, he won’t let me.

Whenever I speak aloud in my inner critical voice, Jay becomes angry. His warm eyes become harder and darker. “Don’t talk about yourself that way,” he says, when I begin my litany of my fatness, worthlessness, and non-contribution. “You’re pissing me off,” he warns. “No one talks about you that way—including you.” I whine that it’s true, that I am fat, worthless, and not contributing. “I love you,” he says.

Is it possible that love, like skin, can stretch a self so markedly? While he acknowledges my bigger body and supports my desire to lose weight so that I’ll be healthier, he says that he finds me lovely as I am. While he pushes me to write, he understands the horror of my headaches and the days I cannot even imagine words, much less produce them. While he relishes a break on the evenings when I am able to cook dinner or put Andrew to bed, he uncomplainingly will floss our grumpy boy’s teeth and read him to sleep on the nights I am too ill. While he ardently hopes for a cure (even if it means we’ll have no more babies of our own), he says he can go on as we are—with me, my sarcoidosis, and his love for me and Andrew. Is it possible? I know if our roles were reversed I would not flee the sweet smell of his skin, the sharp wit of his mind—even if he became fat and unable to work, even if he kept my travels closer to home. Why can’t I take his love with the same faith I offer mine?

Perhaps there is a lesson in my stretch marks. They are a visible sign of accommodation, of making room for what was not planned for, or expected. They prove that life marks us; yet in the marking, we do not explode or combust. We stretch. We love.

I’ll close with the words of one more eloquent that me. In “Last Night’s Moon” Anne Michaels writes:

If love wants you; if you’ve been melted
down to stars, you will love
with lungs and gills, with warm blood
and cold. With feathers and scales.

And with stretch marks, too?

4 Comments

  1. jh said,

    wow. what an inspiring entry.

  2. Paul said,

    Rebecca

    Again you’ve moved me – hang in there

    Paul

    PS sent you an email

  3. Barb said,

    I cried and laughed with this one. I love converting to be Muslim for the clothing.. hmmm. You are precious, Jay is precious and life is not what we plan it to be. Sending care…

  4. Drew Dixon in Miami said,

    Iread this a couple of weeks ago and told Jay, (who I’ve known for about 20+ years now) via email, I spent a lot of time looking up to him in high school and he still makes it hard for me to keep up with him.

    Know that you and your family continue to be in my prayers.

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