Do you want to know how I got these scars – Part four

“Don’t look at that right now.” The doctor placed her hand over the illuminated image on the light box in the wall. She could see that I was transfixed by what I saw. My eyes were locked on the MRI scan, and the prominent dark spot it revealed growing inside my head. I realized in that moment that my life will end too soon, and I won’t be ready when it happens. She must have seen that realization in my eyes, so she simply placed her hand over the dark spot.

Sometimes I can see it in people’s eyes when I’m talking with them, even if they don’t say anything. On occasion they’ll cut through the veil and ask me, totally out of the blue: are you okay, is something wrong, are you upset? They’ve detected something in my face—an unexpected trace of sadness or dismay in my expression.

I can feel it in my face when it’s happening, a kind of tingling or numbness along my cheek and the corner of my mouth on one side. It’s more pronounced when I’m tired, or when I’m feeling stress, or when I’m thinking intently about a problem or complexity I’ve encountered. Most concerning is when it happens for no reason at all.

The neurosurgeon told me that his biggest concern wasn’t the challenge of drilling open my skull behind my right ear. Nor was it the delicate task of slicing through the labyrinth of my inner ear to expose the tumor, or the mind-bending prospect of safely cutting it out and removing from its deeply embedded resting place without damaging my brain. His biggest concern wasn’t even my severely damaged hearing, which is what first alerted me that something was wrong. His biggest concern, he told me—the biggest challenge of my upcoming surgery—was the facial nerve. The tumor had grown completely around it.

If the facial nerve is damaged during the surgery, if it’s stretched, or nicked by the scalpel, or in the worst case scenario, severed, the right side of my face will lose muscle control and my eye, cheek, and mouth on that side will permanently “fall” or slump downwards, he said. He put his hand to the side of his own face and dragged his fingers down down his cheek to demonstrate. His eye and mouth melted grotesquely down on one side, like a child making a funny-sad face in the mirror.

I try and fail to pretend that I’m not a vain person. I’ve come to terms with this personality trait, or flaw, depending how you look at it. I work hard to minimize the worst aspects of it in myself without killing the positive ones, and I do believe there are a few positive ones. It becomes easier to manage as I get older, in part because every day I learn I have less to feel vain about as I once thought I had.

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Myles and me on the balance rings in 2004, a few years before my surgery.

I’ve learned that vanity is an especially unbecoming companion as I grow older. Maintaining dignity and pride in oneself and appearance is important, but as we age we should know better than to allow our vanities to go completely unchecked, lest a candid moment in reflection give the lie to our illusions. After a few dozen torrid trips around the sun—and we all make the journey every year—the stamps on our passports become plentiful and obvious. The pages grow more dog-eared and rumpled with each handling. Eventually we all run out of room for another stamp. Eventually we all come to the last page.

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Under the bridge in 2017.

Part five coming soon