The Dark, Narrow Path
Despite our utter lack of jobs and the certainty of seminary bills soon to come, my husband Jared and I spent my twenty-second birthday smiling fearlessly as we filled the cabinets and bookcases of our new on-campus apartment. Jared and I soaked up the August Texas sunshine like rechargeable batteries, like we’d never run out of energy, or joy, or certainty that we’d made the right choices. Our logic, if we had any, must have been that since we’d chosen the narrow path, everything else would fall into place.
Logic or not, the hundred-degree pavement radiated heat, and we radiated passion right back. Soon enough, we secured jobs that would keep food in the pantry and books in our hands. Jared’s extroversion paved a road for us into some of the dearest friendships of our lives.
During a January evening spent with a group of those friends, our conversations slowly siphoned off into smaller and smaller circles. I nestled into a corner of our slipcovered couch with another seminary wife and told her that while Jared and I had found a church, a grocery store, even a dry cleaner, we hadn’t yet found doctors. Did she have any recommendations, I asked.
“Girl,” she said as she gripped my sweater-clad arm, her thick Tennessee accent dripping like honey from a mason jar, “You’ve got to see my gynecologist. She’s the best.”
I recall us like paper dolls play-acting a scene. In my mind’s eye, we look as though a young girl cut us out of a book and decorated us with markers. She arranged us onto a coloring page titled “living room” and enlivened us with a script penned by eavesdropping on one of her mother’s conversations.
My mom talks about going to a doctor called a “gynecologist” so I should have my paper dolls talk about that too. Then they’ll seem like real adults.
When I behold myself in this memory, I know rationally that I had reached adulthood. Twenty-two can be considered young in many ways, but it still lands firmly on the “adult” end of the age spectrum. In my case, by twenty-two, I’d gotten married, graduated from college, and found a way to pay the bills. None of those things made me an adult, but they testified to the fact that I’d chosen to embrace the freedoms of adulthood, to fly, to live only in nests of my own making.
And yet, when I recall the young woman nestled into the couch, I see a paper doll. I see a girl, who, nearly two years into her marriage still whispered the word “gynecologist” back to her Southern-drawled friend so that their husbands didn’t overhear such a word.
I took the Tennessean’s advice and saw her gynecologist within the next few weeks. I sat in a blue gown on a white paper covered table, a paper doll arranged on her next coloring book page titled “doctor’s office.” The gynecologist entered the room and, near the end of the exam, placed her hand on my throat.
“So many young women have thyroid issues,” she explained nonchalantly.
I looked up to find her eyes as she continued to work her hand up and down, from my collarbone to beneath my chin. She focused on the wall behind me as she felt my throat, never meeting my gaze. The certainty I’d soaked up in those early Dallas days had fallen away with the pile of clothes I’d shed before the doctor entered the room. I sat paper thin, entirely at her mercy.
“I think I feel something,” she finally said. “It’s probably nothing, but let’s have an ultrasound done, okay? Just to make sure.”
I barely heard her. I just wanted to flip the page in the coloring book, hide in familiar clothes, exit the scene. I liked the doctor, yet, as a girl who still whispered the word “gynecologist,” I found everything about the room and her touch to be more than I knew how to handle. I agreed to the ultrasound, dressed, and left.
A week later, on a day when Dallas woke up to find itself uncharacteristically blanketed in snow, I had the ultrasound done. Shortly after that, a biopsy was conducted on the mass, scissors slitting a paper neck just beneath a paper face with starry eyes that had lost just a hint of their shine. Ten days later, we knew. Cancer.
Two surgeries came, more cuts into a paper doll whose coloring page scenes would be titled “dark bedroom” and “friends bring over dinner” for weeks that turned to months, whose throat would bear a slash turned scab turned scar forever.
I knew deep down and all along that weakness never maintained as far a distance from me as I envisioned. I could absorb all the youthful passion I wanted. I could revel in the adventure of moving to a new place without a job, energized by the certainty of calling, and on many days that revelling would be enough. The jobs would appear, the friendships would come, the days would end in sweet sleep.
But then the days and the diagnoses would come when exhaustion would make me wonder if I’d failed. The days of paper gowns and paper covered tables and feeling like a paper doll would overwhelm me with the awareness that talking about my body made me feel so weak and vulnerable that I would worry doctors could hear my soul’s shrieks to flip the page in the coloring book and change the scene.
Those cancer days are eight years gone, but I can’t quite say the same for my comfortability with talking about my body. I take no pride in my scars. I see every cut as a tale of weakness, a story of my inability to be strong enough in the first place. I have come to see much more clearly just how frail I am. I have yet to find much compassion for myself. But telling these stories at all, I think, acknowledging the fear and the weakness and the paper thinness, maybe that’s a step.