by William Bradley
“These tattoos provide a very positive tool in the treatment of cancer. During treatment they are necessary so the radiation therapist can precisely pinpoint the area needing treatment. After treatment they provide a history of the patient’s treatment areas to future healthcare providers.”
–John T. Gwozdz, M.D.
“The body never lies.”
–Martha Graham, American dancer and choreographer
For most of my life, I have tended to go along without giving my body much conscious thought beyond the necessities of nourishment, excretion, and libido. It’s really only when something is wrong—head congestion, leg cramp, shortness of breath due to the occasional panic attack—that I really think of my body. Even then, it’s usually to think of it as something separate from me, something impeding my efforts to focus on what I want or need to be focused on.
As I enter middle age, though, I find that I’ve been thinking about my body more frequently. I never used to have allergies, for example, but now take Claritin at least once a day in the spring. Riding a bicycle—which was, for the longest time, my preferred method of transportation—now results in more fatigue than it used to. Not too very long ago, while lying on the couch with my head in my wife’s lap while watching a movie, I suffered a back spasm that caused me to bolt upright and cross my arms in front of myself. She grabbed for the phone, thinking I was having a heart attack.
So I’ve been considering my body, and spending more time looking at it in the mornings, before getting into the shower. I used to avoid doing this—as a young man, it was bad for my self-image to acknowledge the lack of muscle tone and—at various times—either scrawniness or beer-bloated heaviness of my upper body. But if I must be an old man—and apparently, that’s my fate—I feel obligated to look at myself and honestly deal with what I see.
As a nonfiction writer I’m most struck by the way my body can be read as a narrative of illness and injury. My oldest markings appear on the right-hand side of my body, and tell the story of foolish accidents from childhood. In my right hip there is a small grayish-blue dot that used to be bigger, but hasn’t quite faded away. This is graphite from the tip of a pencil, jammed into my side while I was shooting a free-throw during a school ground basketball game. I had forgotten that the pencil was in my pocket, and when I fell forward after putting all of my strength into the shot, the pencil jabbed its way through the fabric of the shorts I was wearing and into my side. The injury must have been pretty severe—I remember going to the family doctor over it, but not the emergency room. The memory has faded as surely as the wound has healed, but there’s still that tiny dot.
There’s also the hypertrophic scar just below my right elbow, from the time I took the steepest hill in our neighborhood on my ten-speed, only to discover that the brakes didn’t work quite as well as I needed them to in order to attempt such a feat. I went careening, ass over handlebars, into my neighbors’ mailbox, knocking it down and messing up my bike’s chain in the process. Luckily, the neighbors were on vacation. To this day, I doubt they know why their mailbox mysteriously “fell down.” Though I suspected that I needed stitches for the deep cut in my arm, I just went home and put a big Band-Aid on it. I didn’t want to get into trouble for taking out the neighbor’s mailbox, after all.
The stories told by these scars seem kind of quaint, maybe even silly, in hindsight. At the time, I’m sure I thought I had experienced great pain, but that was nothing compared to the tales the scars on my left could tell you.
The first and most obvious scar would be the one on my neck, which is actually three different scars from three different lymph node biopsies. I was diagnosed with cancer—Hodgkin’s Disease—three times between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-four. These indentations that line my neck tell at least part of the story of those early adulthood years—hours spent kneeling in front of the toilet; the baseball hat that filled with my own shed hair in one afternoon; the lonely, terror-filled nights that eventually turned into exhausted mornings.
I have a smaller biopsy scar inside my right thigh, near my groin. This biopsy was done several years later, after a routine scan suggested I had a mass growing there. It turned out to be a mistake, but I have this small line there to remind me of the time that we thought my cancer had not only come back, but had moved south.
I don’t tend to notice these markings very often—they’re simply a part of that body that, as I mentioned before, I tend not to think about. I’m not sure that most people who see them even notice them—nobody has ever asked. But people do tend to ask about the dots on my chest, splitting me right down the middle, when they see me without a shirt on. This doesn’t happen too often as I get older and spend less time at swimming pools or water parks, but every girlfriend I’ve had since 2000 has, at some point, rested her head against my bare shoulder and pointed to one, asking, “What are these?” They look like freckles, only blue.
I’d always wanted a tattoo, but I’ve never been able to come up with a design that really expresses something important to me. I know that some people memorialize dead loved ones by inscribing their names on their skin. but I don’t really have a dead loved one who I can honestly say meant so much to me that it would justify such a permanent reminder. An ex-girlfriend has the name of her two kids on her leg. That seems cool, but I don’t have kids, I have cats. Getting a cat’s name tattooed on one’s body just seems ridiculous. One friend of mine—a professor of religion and very devout Christian—has the Greek words for “sin” and “grace” tattooed on his upper arm. That’s a cool tattoo—personally important, but also rather scholarly. I’d like a tattoo like that, but all that comes to mind for me and my life are quotes by essayists. “Que sais-je?” “A writer is always selling somebody out.” “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” But these feel more pretentious than genuinely expressive of my own personality or interests—although I must admit that the last one, written by E.B. White in “The Ring of Time,” is sort of tempting. I have a feeling it would be a good conversation starter if I could unbutton my shirt at the hotel bar at the next academic conference to display that emblazoned across my chest.
So, no artistic, intellectual, or spiritual tattoo for me. But there are the blue dots. These were administered by a medical technician with a needle in February of 2000, when I was diagnosed with cancer for the third and—so far, at least—final time. Chemotherapy—both conventional and more aggressive—had failed to destroy my malignancy, so the decision was made that I should be treated with radiation. As we all know, radiation can be very effective at curing cancers, but also effective at causing cancers as well. For this reason, doctors are careful about pointing the radiation beam directly and specifically at the malignant mass. To help calibrate their radiation machine, they draw targets on the patient’s body—for me, those targets were tiny blue dots that go down my chest. My tattoos.
These little dots are not quite as explicitly spiritual as the religion professor’s markings or as emotionally resonant as my ex-girlfriend’s kids’ names, but I have to say, they matter to me. When I do happen to notice them, or when I do have to explain them, they call to mind all sorts of important things. They remind me of my mortality, which can be depressing but also inspiring—the knowledge that we don’t have much time is an admonishment not to waste any.
More than that, though, they remind me of the absolute worst months of my life. I spent eight weeks getting treatments that caused me to vomit and the skin on my chest and back to burn and crack, seeping blood and pus. I had no family nearby at that point, and though I had many good friends who tried to help me, they were also living their lives while I—for the only time in my life—was thinking seriously about ending mine. I spent my days eating Wheat Thins and drinking Hawaiian Punch—nothing else appealed to my tumultuous stomach or inflamed throat. I sat around listening to Warren Zevon’s version of Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again,” which was the saddest song I knew.
Why on earth, you might ask, would I want to be reminded of such a time? Perhaps for the same reason that my friend the Christian displays his faith on his skin or my ex-girlfriend the single mom has her kids on hers: Gratitude. Appreciation. It’s been twelve years since I finished these treatments. As my health returned, I vowed to never forget, to try to be a better person. But in the decade-plus that’s transpired since then, I have largely failed in those endeavors. I still lose my temper in traffic. I still forget to clean the cat’s litter box despite promising my wife I will do it. I still have inconsiderate or selfish moments that disappoint, frustrate, and anger others. I’m not a monster, and I never was. But I can do better.
My tattoos—these blue dots down my chest that mark me as someone who has suffered, held onto his life, and promised himself that he would make that life count for something—remind me to do just that: better. Better than the self-centered person I know I can be. Better than the lazy guy who shuts his office door and screws around on Facebook when he is supposed to be writing. Better than the short-tempered professor who sometimes feels personally insulted when his students fail an assignment. Better than the husband who unintentionally breaks his promises. Better than I am. The blue dots—like the other markings on my body—ultimately remind me of my own frailty, and the need to live a life that I won’t regret, once it’s over. These markings tell the story of my life. What’s more, they remind me of the story’s moral.
William Bradley’s work appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, and The Utne Reader. He was a professor at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio and the author of Fractals, a collection of essays, in which this piece appears. He died on August 28, 2017 at the age of 41.
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