Some of my biggest challenges come from The Rumpus, which publishes a mix of essays, reviews, interviews, short fiction, and poetry. Some of the essays are intensely personal. One was about a young woman’s wrenching struggle with colorectal cancer.
The story had some very graphic elements. The managing editor told me she wanted someone who would “choose the right moments to illustrate,” rather than submit work that would “make us all queasy.” I appreciated the compliment. I do like to think I’m pretty good at finding “the right moments.”
My parents came with me to the appointment. My mother wore a fuchsia blouse
and her trademark purple Converse high tops. My father’s thick bifocals, usually smudged with fingerprints, had been cleaned for the occasion. How would it feel to accompany your twenty-eight-year-old daughter to the doctor, to look at her and imagine a tumor growing inside her, this person you created, birthed, and raised? The three of us sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the doctor’s fluorescent-lit office as he made his pronouncement, the same as the doctors’ in Seattle: A growth. Not Crohn’s disease.
But a problem arose. Because the coverage started with the fall quarter, the university had a rule that a student needed to be enrolled in at least one class in order to be eligible for the insurance. My surgery was scheduled for October, less than a month into the fall quarter. I wouldn’t be able to attend class for several weeks following the surgery, maybe even months. How could I enroll in school if
I couldn’t go?
She suggested that I sign up for an independent study. I connected with a librarian I’d done some volunteer tutoring with the previous year, and made a plan to assist her in creating curriculum guides to accompany library kits for preschoolers. I would do research on child development and write a paper.
“We are the two best colorectal surgeons on the West Coast,” he said, beaming… “Let’s take a look at your films.”
The reader was not in another room, as my TV hospital drama-fed mind had assumed, but actually in the hallway… He flipped a switch and the reader lit up, exposing my lower half: pelvic bones, coccyx, abdomen, colon. He pointed to a
golf-ball-sized white area, near the bottom of my spine…
“We’d take out your rectum, your anus,” he was saying. “It’s hard to tell for sure where this mass is until we open you up…”
A door opened beside us and another doctor emerged from his office. I hoped that my doctor would take down the films, suggest we continue the conversation back in the exam room. Instead, he greeted the other doctor, who stopped on his way to the front desk. I thought he might look at my scan, deliver his own opinion… but he seemed to take no notice of them, or even of me. He looked up at the ceiling above their heads.
“That light bulb has been burned out for a long time,” he said.
Two nurses helped me onto the table. Bob Dylan played softly in the background. One surgeon was there, along with a resident and the anesthesiologist…
“This reminds me of college,” I said. I meant that the combination of the sedative and the lyrics to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” coming from a portable stereo I couldn’t see reminded me of getting high on tapestried couches in over-warm dorm rooms…
Someone placed a mask over my face. I coughed. The harmonica cut out. Dylan,
his voice a whisper, called me babe and told me over and over that it was all right. Guitar notes faded as he retreated down the dark side of the road.
You can read the entire essay on therumpus.net.
Any thoughts on the story or the illustrations? Please leave a comment.
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You might also enjoy this post about another Rumpus assignment: it was for an essay entitled My Evenings Reading Alone.
About Mark: I’m an illustrator specializing in humor, branding, social media, and content marketing. I create images that get content seen and shared.
Questions? Send me an email.