I hate skin and everything about it. Beyond saying the word, which I try to avoid doing, I generally dislike everything about skin. As if it isn’t already the most egregious offense against humanity to have pores, it goes on to chafe, peel, flake, tear, wrinkle, freckle and age. When it truly has had enough of you, it does something utterly disgusting by sprouting a varicose vein, or worse, a mole.
Once a year, I book my sack of skin an appointment at the dermatologist so that I may endure the indignity of having my entire body placed under a high-magnitude lens, something that had previously only happened to me when joining a sorority in college. Seeing the dermatologist is especially painful in Maine, where appointments are scarcely even available, owing — I suspect — to the fact that skin doctors don’t come in droves to a state in which more unsheathed flesh could be glimpsed at a village of Quakers.
As I called to schedule my body check, I was reminded of the tragic outcome of the last visit.
A couple of years ago, I had a spot of a dubious nature on my face that had been causing me worry. After pleading my sob story to a friend, she called in a favor to a board certified dermatologist. When the nurse called to offer me an appointment within the week, I nabbed it enthusiastically without concern for the 75-mile drive or whether my then husband would even be able to watch our three kids. In between scrawling my list of concerns for the doctor — things like “are stretch marks reversible?” — I orchestrated a masterful plan that involved driving the kids two hours south where I would deposit them to their father who would have flown into the airport the night before and would sleep at his sister’s apartment. When I received the text message the night before my appointment that he had safely landed and was en route to his sister’s place, I fell into a contented sleep, at peace that the stars were aligning to ensure I would be studied, scraped and lasered just after sunrise.
As I neared the city limits, kids plotting their counter-assault from their carseats, I placed a call to their dad to herald our arrival. The call went unanswered. As we traversed the closing miles, I dialed his phone no less than 400 times. I continued to phone in 20-second intervals from an illegal parking spot in front of his sister’s building. I glanced at the time on my phone, fretting over how dangerously close I was to missing the appointment. I briefly contemplated setting fire to the building so that everyone would come running out.
Paranoid thoughts began to tear at the edges of my crumbling composure, and I wondered if the two of them could have gone out the night before and encountered something more grim than the usual women in tube tops. The irrational side of my brain made the argument that both of them were probably residing in large vats of formaldehyde, resulting in a dozen voicemail messages of the “I’m really starting to worry that you’re dead, which is making me feel scared and sad, but I’m also about to miss this appointment that was impossible to get so dead is really the only excuse I’m accepting” variety.
Finally accepting the futility of the situation, I drove to the doctor’s office for my appointment that had already begun. I frantically ushered the kids into the building promising lollipops and llama rides between gritted teeth if they just remained quiet and still while the doctor ran through her repertoire. After a tearful explanation to the woman at the front desk, whose contempt for me and my children was as evident as the sciatica pillow underneath her rump, she waved me into an exam room. Once inside, I placed the two toddlers in the chairs along the wall, mischief emanating from their eyes which scanned the room wildly for fragile and costly medical apparatus. My littlest, still an infant then, remained in her carseat on the floor beside the examination table. I smiled reassuringly at everyone while silently praying that that doctor be an empathetic maternal sort.
The look that passed over her face when she entered the room clearly conveyed otherwise.
While the kids danced close to crossing the line into pandemonium, the doctor studied the spot I indicated concern over. She determined it to be a pre-cancerous segment that would need to be removed. She gently inquired if I would like to reschedule the procedure to a more convenient time, blithely unaware that convenience sauntered out of my life years ago, arms linked with free time and personal hygiene. I insisted that the removal occur immediately and that the kids would cooperate beautifully. Just as she raised the bottle of liquid nitrogen into position under my left eye, the baby released a gut-wrenching cry from her location on the floor.
Reflexively I jerked my face out of the spray trajectory, hoping my orbital socket wasn’t now an empty cavity. I exhaled with relief, partially because I was glad to still have the power of sight but mostly because I’d been spared bringing all of my kids to the emergency room for an eyeball fitting. She faltered before sheepishly asking if I wanted to continue. Just as I began to nod emphatically, fully in favor of her completing my face melting in front of my impressionable onlookers, my littlest began to sob in that way that only babies and Meryl Streep can muster.
To quiet the hysteria, I did something that no amount of medical training or watching of “Grey’s Anatomy” could have prepared this dermatologist for. I did something I hope to never acquiesce to again while sitting pantsless atop crinkly exam table paper.
I nursed a baby.
While that doctor performed cryosurgery on the soft tissue of my cheek, the icy spray of the liquid nitrogen mere centimeters above the scalp of my infant’s head, I breastfed a baby. Anyone who champions for the beauty and wonder of breastfeeding has never had to do it with her dermatologist straining to keep her eyes on the cancer she was eradicating. The shame washed over me much like the liquified gas from her canister. Unable to identify what bothered me more — the fact my husband might be dead, or that I had pre-cancer, or that my hope to discreetly inquire about a little Botox had been dashed by the feeding demands of an infant — my thoughts were interrupted by the vibration of a text message sent to my cell phone.
Sorry. I overslept and my phone was on silent.
And with the memory of that visit, I waited on the phone for the receptionist to book this year’s appointment. When she asked if I needed to be seen urgently, I exhaled and said, “I can wait till it’s convenient for you.”