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THE SKIN BAG LINDA E. OLDS* How odd to be somebody who can be stitched up, like a puckered seam in cloth of skin. A bag of skin, this—not me. A cosmic joke of mistaken identity: this mortal, cuttable barrier, this flesh-covered chain mail oflovely latticed delicacy, is but a wrapping, a covering for my soul, my self, costume for a life. My essence is no more housed in this vehicle than eternity stuffed into a container. So cosmic joke is gift as well—an odd disidentification with the tailor's cuts and mended tears. What humor for the mirror. No more caught now than before, but liberated. Skin cancer has a much less disrupting ring to it than the big C, but when it is one's own, it casts its own dark shadow. Enough to turn the ordinary dermatological scan, accidentally tacked onto a tagalong visit for my husband, into a major inroad of startle and denial. That is an old scar, I argued. Hasn't changed in years, I protested, as dizzying prickles crept through my tentacled capillaries. Who me? Is this denial or what, I clinically observed to myself. The doctor recounted that basal cell seems to mimic, camouflage itself as scar tissue; that it is the least dangerous of the skin cancers; that really, she wouldn't be able to sleep that night if she let me leave without a biopsy. The surgery was decisive, swift, local, precise; the suture-side manner impeccable , nurturing, informative, allowing my out of proportionate fear to settle back down into a few tears, embarrassments, questions well answered, and reassurances. I loved my doctor, and felt there could be no wrong, that this would surely pass from me. The small flesh-colored bandage became my mark of special vigil. The few tiny black stitches, when once unveiled, were little more than a spider's decoration, preferable I thought to flapping bandages that would not adhere to that difficult-to-cover triangle of nose, cheek, and upper lip, the triangle of identity I was later told, the most difficult part of the face to work on, the most attached to our sense of facial recognition, the site of multiple embryological planes abundantly connect- * Department of Psychology, Linfield College, 900 S.E. Baker Street, McMinnville, OR 97128-6894.© 1998 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/98/4003-1044$01.00 446 Linda E. Olds ¦ The Skin Bag ing. The place where personality and habit moved my face in rhythm with the hands' gesticulation, the place of expression, of laugh lines, of smiles and frowns. A special place marking me, carefully swabbed, and attended to with vigilance befitting this new private shrine of identity. When I returned barely short of a week later, healing fast upon the sutures , the doctor sat down. Not a good sign, I read, and yes, the biopsy was basal cell and would need removing. It looked small, but when pressed by my imagination to reveal the risks, she admitted to some people losing part of their nose. With horror written across my face, and blank amazement at the thought of noseless people emerging from this ordeal, I listened to her articulation of Mohs Micrographic Surgery and its wonders, its combination of surgery and pathology testing, back and forth in serial oscillation until the layer of tissue removed no longer bore the mark of cancer, and no more than necessary had been removed. It sounded magnificent, if one has to go through this, a technique brought fresh and gleaming from the inventor's palette, just in time perfected and honed, with experts in the city. That very daywe stopped by the hospital to schedule. Foiled. With timing off, crowded schedules, and doctor's absence, the risk of school beginning with only half a nose or face loomed large. Odd how clarifying of decisions the possibility of bodily invasion, loss, disfiguration becomes. Images formed of facial beggars, limping across conversations entreating serious consideration, begging for mercy and salves against outraged vanity. Would students listen to half a face, or stare only horror-struck into the crevasse? It was clear, the trip to England must...


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