Archive for the ‘Cancer’ Category

Her feet were perfect.  Long and slender, with toenails painted a sparkly shade of Grape Fanta, like any other teenaged girl’s would be.  I had no choice but to notice these lovely feet; I was massaging them gently as the patient lay in her hospital bed.

Grateful for their ordinariness, yet trapped by it, I struggled knowing that I could go no further.  Because if I attempted to massage any other part of her body, I would have to move closer to the hole in her face where her nose used to be.

Serena was under the care of Hospice due to an aggressive form of skin cancer.  It was attacking the parts of her body that had been most exposed to the sun.  Like most of us, her face had seen the most direct sunlight, and it was on her face that the cancer was its most virulent.

She was blind, and bandages covered the top of her head down to just below her eyes.  Right below the bandages her face looked like some rabid animal had been feasting on it.  In a sense, that’s exactly what had happened: the cancer was eating her alive.

When I entered her room, soft Spanish-language hymns were playing on a boom box.  Her mother was sitting on the cot by the window, stringing beads.  She had boxes and boxes of beads, and bags full of finished bracelets and necklaces. Serena was wearing one of the beaded bracelets around her right ankle, a gift of adornment any girl might receive from her mom.

“Hola Senora,” I said, as I reached into my limited repertoire of Spanish phrases.  I explained as best I could that I had come to offer her daughter a massage. She approached Serena’s bed and asked her if she would like a massage. “Si,” came the whispered assent, lisped from a mouth missing its upper palate.

I brought a chair to the foot of the bed and glanced up along her skeletal frame.  In addition to the facial disfigurement, she had large tumors dotting her skin at various sites on her body.  Although the nurse had told me I could massage Serena’s shoulders, I knew with one glance that I would not be able to.  I was afraid that if I moved closer to her face, I would freak out.

I’m aware that my admission of this aversion might seem unprofessional or insensitive.  It’s not meant to be.  It’s just that I had never before encountered such an utterly disfiguring disease.  I did not feel equipped, emotionally, to look it (literally) in the face.

Gingerly, I lifted the sheet from her feet.  When those sparkly purple toenails peeked up at me, my relief was palpable.  “You can do this,” I told myself.  “Just keep breathing, and focus on her feet.”

As I applied lotion to the only part of her body that was covered with appropriately young, unblemished skin, I looked up at her mother, who had clearly had been the one to paint Serena’s toenails. It was a way that she could honor her daughter’s beauty, to give her something that Serena couldn’t even see, but everyone who cared for her could. This one area, a demilitarized zone on the ravaged body of a teenaged girl, sparkled in the soft light.  I sat, mesmerized by the simple beauty of those young, elegant feet, and tried not to cry.

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