“Oh shit,” you may think, “I am going to die.”
My mother has no bellybutton. They took it during one of her “major” surgeries. Over the last fifteen years or so, Mom has had so many surgeries, she now divides them into categories to keep them straight in her head. Minor surgeries are the outpatient ones, like when she visits the specialist who refills the deck-of-card-sized pain pump implanted in her side. Major surgeries are those requiring extended hospitalization and recovery, like when they cut out her colon, the several surgeries she has had to cut away ever-growing inches or snipped away inches of dead intestine, or the time they returned her appendix to its home below her abdomen from where they found it, floating near her lung as if it were a lost cat. The bellybuttonectomy was part of a major surgery to untangle an intestine that had looped itself through her bowel, a potentially fatal condition.
Before the operation, her doctor asked Mom how attached she felt to her navel, explaining that if she felt the need to preserve it, a plastic surgeon could be brought in to tie together a new one for her like a balloon knot. If a doctor ever asks me how attached I am to my own bellybutton, I will answer, “Very!” because although I am not crazy about any of my body parts, I am selfish enough that I would like to keep them all.
Mom told the doctor she did not hold her own bellybutton quite so dear. “Good,” he said, since the plastic surgeon would require an additional expense not covered by whichever insurance company had the misfortune to hold my mother’s policy. It’s hard to argue with an insurance company refusing to pay for a new navel. Even I, a proponent of universal health care and renowned hater of The Man, would have a hard time defending the expense of reconstructive bellybutton surgery. So, with Mom’s blessing, they took it. Where her bellybutton used to be, there is now just skin, like a pothole that’s been paved over.
How strange to not have a bellybutton. After all, a bellybutton is one of those things that defines us, not only as humans, but as members of the entire biological class mammalia. Without a bellybutton, you could just as easily be a fish or fungus. Having it taken seems like a peculiar kind of bodily transgression, as if a burglar broke into your house but only stole your high school ring.
Growing up, I don’t remember Mom ever having so much as a cold, despite the fact that she’d struggled with her weight her entire life, never exercised, and spent years smoking Virginia Slims, the feminist cigarette. Then, almost overnight, it all turned to shit.
Her health woes began in a teeny vacation cottage she once owned with her partner, Sandy, in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her partner, Sandy. They used to spend a month there each summer after Sandy’s term as a South Florida preschool director ended. The cottage is where Mom first noticed persistent and heavy bleeding from her lady parts. (As her son, I am incapable of writing anything more specific than “lady parts” when describing my mother’s lady parts.)
The telephone calls to me and my brother Eric were brief and to the point: she had uterine cancer… they’d found it early, Stage 1… her prognosis was excellent… no, she didn’t need us to fly down there… she and Sandy would be returning to Florida for surgery, followed by a course of radiation… we should go about our lives as if nothing were amiss… updates forthcoming.……
Cancer is a scary diagnosis, of course, but Mom did not seem worried. Or perhaps she chose to keep the worry from her words so as not to alarm us. And perhaps we let her do this because, even though we are adults, we are also still her children, and children, no matter how old, allow themselves to be gullible with their parents because being gullible is often easier than being wise.
Upon her return to Florida, Mom underwent a radical hysterectomy. The surgery revealed bad news. Her cancer had invaded the uterine wall, changing her diagnosis from Stage 1 to Stage 3. Cancer diagnoses are divided into four stages, with Stage 4 being terminal. They are further subdivided into letters a through c. Mom’s cancer was re-diagnosed as Stage 3c, only one squiggly letter away from a death sentence.
A few years ago, I wrote a book called You’re Not Doing It Right, a (very good, please purchase) memoir about romantic relationships and marriage. This book is a follow-up, focusing on time and family and the body - subjects I began thinking about with a certain degree of seriousness around the time Mom first got sick, and deepening after I turned forty. Forty is that moment most of us believe ourselves to be balanced right at the fulcrum of the life expectancy teeter board. On one side, we see our parents’ generation starting to get old, some of them sick, some of them already dead. On the other, our children’s generation, brimming with a vibrant joie de vivre best described as “annoying.” And there you are, balanced between the two for a split second before beginning your inexorable slide towards the land of dashed dreams and broken hips.
Once you hit forty, it is no longer possible to pretend you will remain forever young. In fact, according to the Social Security Administration, a man like me, aged forty-three, can only expect to live an additional thirty-eight years. In other words, I am past my life’s midpoint; calling myself middle-aged is a disservice to the entire field of mathematics. Yet, I don’t feel like my life is halfway over. I feel exactly as I did ten or fifteen years ago. But somehow whole decades have elapsed in the time I’ve spent upgrading my iPhones through their various iterations. Worlds have whirled around meEntire species have gone extinct as I drove around parking lots looking for a betterspaces. Then one day, I look up and and a government agency is informing me I am no longer a zesty young man, but a just-past-middle-aged adult with adult responsibilities and a mortgage and the first signs of erectile dysfunction. This moment eventually happens to all of us, the moment when you first sense that the road you are traveling may, at some point, have an end. And when that realization hits, it does so in the sudden, jarring manner of a car crash: “Oh, shit!” you may think at the moment of impact. “I’m going to die.”