(An excerpt from Wisdom: A Love Story.)
Out of the blue, I was facing brain surgery.
Any person in my shoes would imagine worst possible scenarios, including death. I was no different in that regard. The idea of leaving my son without a mother was haunting. But I had another fear that seemed like a throwback to my Baptist adolescence. What if death stole my chance to get saved? Not by Jesus, but by love? Being with John was Welcome to the Human Species, the light at the end of the therapy tunnel. It might even ease a reunion with Zack. John was a good and kind man, and I imagined his goodness might somehow rub off on my son. Zack would see that someone loved his mama, and that she was good, too.
But here came brain surgery. The very operation that was going to restore my health and vitality might be a thief, and an inept one. Dying when you were happy was tragic. Dying when you weren’t was pointless, a waste.
What if that pointless life were mine?
My habit when faced with challenges—buying a house, applying to graduate school, a new job—was to generate an exhaustive to-do list with the most important tasks at the top. I even saved old to-do lists in a file labeled Getting Shit Done, the stacks of crossed-off items deliciously satisfying evidence of productivity. Now, I once again flew into action.
The paperwork for leave from Boston University was at the top. Next, I had to set up an online platform to regularly update my family. My parents were anxious, and I didn’t want to take on the work of comforting them. (“Why do you have to keep saying you’re having brain surgery?” my youngest sister Amy had asked. “Can’t you call it something else? It’s upsetting everyone.”) I would need someone to shop for me and take me to checkups. But I couldn’t afford a visiting nurse. I ticked down the list of friends who might be able to help on a rotating basis. There weren’t any. Rebecca had small children, and she lived two hours away.
“Move in with me,” John said. Haley and Grace had moved a few blocks from her school. “The house is empty.”
Talk of moving in together was a multi-thread knot that only got tighter as I worked it. My mother had many times reminded me that she had no more S-pages in her address book. Each time I moved, she had to cross out the old entry. And I had moved a lot: probably twenty-five times in as many years. It wasn’t because I liked moving; it was because no place ever felt like home.
Then there was my father’s adage that “a guy’s not gonna buy a cow if he gets his milk for free.” Sexism with a grain of wisdom. A domestic test-drive wasn’t a guarantee of romantic happiness. And though he had cleaned it up some, John’s house was still inhospitable. The decision to move in together should be a deliberate one and not a default. Playing house was risky.
“I’m too old for that,” I said.
I became single-mindedly focused on Getting Shit Done. John kept asking to help, to visit, to talk about my feelings. And I kept saying no.
“Stop trying to fix me,” I said. “Maybe you should talk to your therapist.”
Unless he was completely self-deluded, he said, that wasn’t it. He simply wanted to be a helpmate. “Here’s my analogy,” he texted. “You’re the mechanic fixing your personal ride. When I wander into the shop, I want to be the guy that knows my way around and can hand you the right-weight oil or wrench when you ask for it. I don’t want to be the guy kicking over oil pans and dropping tools down the floor grate.”
I gave in to a smile. It wasn’t poetry, but close enough. I replied that in my garage, there had never been a helper. I could manage on my own. “That has nothing to do with you being a good guy. You are the best and only guy.”
A few hours later, he showed up at my door.
“I can’t tell if you’re actually trying to drive me away,” he said, “or just scared.” Since he couldn’t tell, he would simply listen to himself instead, “and if you don’t want me around, you can lock me out.”
It was a bold move on his part, and wise. I cried for the first time since my diagnosis. In my stubbornness, I had overlooked the obvious. Moving in with him was the default choice precisely because he loved me.
In August, I unloaded my belongings in the odd little house at 81 Center Street.
The neglected little house was a project-doer’s land of dreams, albeit a project-doer who couldn’t walk a straight line. But I was undeterred. John left for travel, and I went into high gear. I sanded the stairway and the living room floor. I sealed the floor and touched up the baseboards. I installed light-blocking blinds in the bedroom. I spruced up the kitchen with a new coat of paint. I rearranged furniture and got rid of junk. Then I moved outside, pruning, raking, and weeding. I even climbed on the roof to clean out the gutters, willing myself not to fall.
By Labor Day weekend, the house was sparkly clean and full of light. I took John on a tour, and his eyes nearly popped. “It finally looks like a real home.”
Then showed him what I had bought: a tray for eating in bed, a special pillow for my neck, and two nighties with necklines wide enough to slide over a bandaged head.
“So we’re all prepared,” he said.
Not quite: there was still the matter of my hair. It would have to be shaved off for the surgery, and my online search for hats had been fruitless. In its effort to compensate for muted femininity, most of the headgear did just the opposite. “This woman has no hair!” the bright scarves and funky hats seemed to shout.
“I’m getting a Lil’ Kim wig,” I groused. “Purple or pink.”
“You could pull it off,” John said. “You’ll look good no matter what.”
I ended up buying three simple black hats. No amount of pulling or slouching could make them look better than hair. I became impatient with my own vanity.
Rather than wake up from surgery without hair, I finally decided I would shave it off myself.
“I’ll shave mine too,” John said. “In solidarity.”
“No,” I smiled. “You’re wicked sexy—keep your hair.”
Three days before the surgery, we spread a shower curtain on the bathroom floor. I savored my reflection for a good long minute, then put John’s clippers to my head. I grew increasingly bold as the feather-light fluff accumulated at my feet. The entire ritual lasted all of ten minutes.
I ran my hands over my skull, naked in the back where the surgeon would cut and spiked in the front. My head felt unusually light and cool. The floor was heaped with chestnut-brown locks streaked with red, silver and gold.
I had thought I might cry. Instead, I was surprised.
“My hair is pretty,” I said, regretting the many years I had lamented it.
“You are totally adorable,” said John.
I put on a black hat and a pair of metallic sunglasses.
“I look like I’m in the Mossad,” I said.
“You look like the hot chick from The Bourne Identity.”
We recorded our conversations about the surgery as installments in an old radio-broadcast.
“And now, for another of Mel and John’s Excellent Adventures in Chiari-Scuro,” I announced, a play on the chiaroscuro-style of painting that juxtaposes light and dark. “By this time next year, brain surgery will probably seem like nothin’. By this time next year, someone will probably have lost an eye—or maybe the house will have burned down.”
“That’s the spirit,” John wryly observed. Then he began to croon and whistle, “Always look on the bright side of life.”
We howled with laughter.
Being read to had always been a pleasure, and now it was a comfort. On weekends, John brought me breakfast in bed, and we dipped into a foot-high stack of books on the bedside table. Disheveled in our pajamas and me in my black hat, we took turns reading Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, and Ann Sexton, “The Journey,” “Song of Myself” and sonnets, and “Eighteen Days Without You.”
Whitman was the inspiration for my goodbye-post on Facebook. The eerie blue image of my brain, its blood vessels lit up like ghost-snakes, was accompanied by these lines:
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from…
“While you are grading the first essays,” I wrote to my friends at school, “I’ll be recovering from brain surgery.” Many friends and colleagues wrote back. “You have the positive energy of your universe behind you, Melanie,” said one. “In our hearts this week and beyond.”
The night before the surgery, John rolled over in bed to face me. “I never gave you your birthday present.”
“First we broke up, then we went to Maine, and then you fell.”
“What is it?”
“I memorized a poem for you.”
I gave a little squeak of excitement. “Can I hear it?”
“Yeah, but I’m nervous, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to keep the light off.”
He started, then fumbled. “Let me start again.”
In the dark his voice was spare, like a bucket rising up out of a clear cold well.
When I cannot look at your face
I look at your feet.
Your feet of arched bone,
your hard little feet.
I know that they support you,
and that your sweet weight
rises upon them.
Your waist and your breasts,
the doubled purple
of your nipples,
the sockets of your eyes
that have just flown away,
your wide fruit mouth,
your red tresses,
my little tower.
But I love your feet
only because they walked
upon the earth and upon
the wind and upon the waters,
until they found me.
“Neruda,” I said, weeping.
I reached for him, and my strapping, sensible scientist of a boyfriend was weeping, too.