I’m dying!” I announced as I slammed my car door closed, my mother running towards me from the home office in our backyard.
“Don’t say that! That is not funny! Eleanor!” she snapped back.
“Well, it could be true,” I grumpily responded, suddenly understanding that no one else would find me very funny anymore. My brother sighed in disgust at my incredibly brave, spirited joke, as he extricated his long legs from our tiny electric car.
“Come on, Ellie,” he warned me, “be nice to Mom.”
I was flabbergasted. I was the one who had the tumor, and somehow it was my responsibility to ensure that my mother was okay? Here I was cracking jokes, letting this life setback just roll off of me, and I was the villain? She had crossed our backyard by then and met me with a desperate hug, clutching at my shoulders. I feebly patted her back as she crooned, “Are you okay? What did she say? How did it happen?” I decided to let her questions run their course before I attempted to address any of them. I guess that was the wrong choice because she pulled away from me and arched, “Well? Did you even ask any questions?” My mother has always been convinced that I don’t ask doctors enough follow up questions.
“I don’t know, she said she won’t be able to tell whether it’s a tumor or cyst or what until after the ultrasound.” I dopily said, staring back through one eyelid already swollen and strained, a stye that had brought me to the doctor’s office in the first place.
Here’s how my week had been going before the appointment: I had gone to an outdoor flea market with my friends and gotten my rather fat finger stuck in a corroded silver ring, just as a trio of gorgeous models drifted by. My friend Chela was rendered completely useless, as her peals of laughter had only alerted the beautiful group to my pathetic situation, as my other friend Sophie gripped the ring and pulled. The beautiful group had tried not to laugh, and I couldn’t blame them. I too would have laughed. Still, I hated getting caught in situations like these. I knew that group of obviously contracted models would never cross paths with me again, but in my town it’s unprofessional to be caught in such an embarrassing position in front of beautiful people.
After the flea market, Sophie, Chela and I had waddled home with our thrifted buys, only for me to discover in the mirror that my third stye of the year was quietly developing. Under my top eyelid was a pink protrusion, and the overwhelming urge to scratch my eye seeped into my pudgy fingers, twitching. I steeled myself against the countertop and blinked rapidly, willing tears into my eyes. A theater kid, I had done this before. The natural saline didn’t cause much relief so I started the tap and ran my face under it.
The next morning, I awoke in my sunny yellow room, adorned with the decorations of my childhood that my parents had insisted I keep up, and found I couldn’t open my right eye. I rushed to the bathroom across my landing, and gasped at the reflection in the mirror. A monster! In my tattered sleep-shirt and disheveled hair, I inspected the throbbing red bump that had glued my eye shut. Prone to styes and patient zero of the pink eye epidemic at my high school, I was accustomed to strange eye afflictions. This, however, was a whole new beast. I pulled out my phone and dialed up my pediatrician. The kind nurse informed me I would have to wait three days before I could see Dr. Sloninsky, and had I tried a hot compress? Amateur. Hot compresses make styes worse.
And so I spent the next three days huddled inside my home, refusing to go anywhere and sneering at my family when they delicately inquired after the reddish pinkish golf ball that was my right eye.
A thing I learned when my doctor tried to hide her concern over the bulging goiter on my neck: doctors are bad actors. “What is this?” she said, far too attentively.
“Oh, it’s just, like, been there.” Suddenly I was gripped with the initial concern this strange mass had at first brought me, when I had pointed it out to my best friend, Chela, at lunchtime at school. “Oh, hmmm, honestly, it’s probably nothing,” she had said, her two fingers lightly jabbing at my jugular, and I had taken her advice.
“This is quite a bump,” Liliana Sloninsky murmured, “How long has this been here?”
“A couple months I think?”
“You should really watch for bumps like these and come in to see me,” she said. I was staring at the baby scale, the changing-table-like contraption that I must have been laid down against as an infant in this very office. She had held my tiny limbs, trying to work around my wailing tantrums on that table. Dr. Sloninsky stopped inspecting my neck and stepped back. We looked at each other.
“Alright, well, I will give you a prescription for that eye, and then we’ll set up an appointment with the imaging center downstairs for an ultrasound with your neck, okay?”
“Do you have any questions for me?”
“No, thank you.”
“Actually, how long will the stye medicine take to set in?”
She sighed, glad I had released her, “just a couple of days, don’t you worry.”
“Okay thank you.”
It took twenty minutes or so for me to tell my brother in the car what Dr. Sloninsky said in the office. He gripped the steering wheel with his large hands and I discovered that he, too, is a terrible actor. “Hmm, well, it’s probably standard protocol for her to get concerned. Let’s call mom.”
It took another six months to get a surgery date because in between the time my concerned doctor had tapped on my bulging neck and the time I was being wheeled out of pre-op in a hairnet, a global pandemic hit. My life continued incredibly normally during these interim months, the only apparent difference being that I now wore scarves and high necked sweaters despite the hot Los Angeles weather, newly insecure over the goiter that hadn’t bothered me before winter break. Luckily, no one was spending much time outside, so I was able to sequester myself in my house and spend long periods craning my head at my reflection in my bathroom mirror, poking at the protruding mass to the side of my jugular. My stye had subsided weeks ago, and all that remained of it was a matching hard ball, a miniature of my neck lump, that was largely covered by my heavy eyelids. No longer so apparent, I mostly forgot about it, and my attention shifted to the ginormous, overwhelming protuberance next to my trachea. It flabbed and flopped as I spoke, and I couldn’t touch my jaw to my clavicle anymore. Not that I crunched my neck in such a matter often before the growth, but now I couldn’t fall asleep sitting up as comfortably. On top of it all, my friends and family were lying to me.
“It’s hardly noticeable,” they would assure me, staring down at the testicular-like abnormality.
And so on my personal gurney ride to the operation room I was overjoyed. Nice Dr. Ramirez was going to smooth down my neck, clipping and manicuring it back to normalcy. In the operation room, Martin the anesthesiologist told me he was giving me the “martini of sedatives,” in his luxurious Australian accent, and I knew I was in good hands. The overheard LED lights blurred and brightened, buzzing as I slipped into a restorative slumber.
It was to my dismay later that day that I discovered a stitched monstrosity stretched across my neck. Martin and Dr. Ramirez had swindled me! She had joked before the surgery, “Excited to get this out, huh?” and gone and disfigured me! The nurse noticed my collecting tears, and promised me, “It will fade with time. And eventually it will be just a little white line.”
“How long does that usually take?” I asked, nonchalantly.
“A year? Maybe a year and a half. It depends on how much sunscreen you wear, which you really should wear daily with your skintone.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A year? A year in which my senior photos, prom pictures, and major public appearances would take place once this silly pandemic wrapped up? Far too outraged to even address the unsolicited dermatological advice, I sat back in my hospital bed, and let a singular, stoic tear slide down my cheek. Then I pulled out my phone and took a couple pictures for evidence. This was the worst day of my life. The tear didn’t really show up in the phone camera, so I scrunched my face in anguish. Better. You could see better that my throat hurt, and I was still high, and my neck was a bloodied, bruised mess. I sat and waited for my father to be allowed into the lobby to take me home. I didn’t even get wheeled out of the hospital. They made me walk out on my own.
At least Martin’s martini still clouded my brain. The whole car ride home I was convinced the sky was pink and had always been pink. I stared out in wonder through the tinted window at the midday sky that pulsed a rosy hue.
Almost two years later, my scar still smudges my neck. Albeit, I didn’t wear much sunscreen. I don’t mind it so much now. Once the stitches came out, and the crusty red line of blood had chipped away, it turned into a neat pink line. It has flattened into my collar, and I can barely feel it as I rub my now smooth, concave neck. I don’t particularly miss my thyroid, and it feels strange that an entire organ can be removed from my body without much consequence.
Only after my thyroid was gone did I start to tell people that I had had a tumor. I was sort of forced to explain the hickey-like mark that would cause raised eyebrows, insinuating jokes. Everyone always feels like an asshole when I tell them it was a cancer scare.
“It’s totally okay! It was all fine! Took my thyroid out and we’re good. If you have to get cancer, thyroid cancer is the cancer to get!” I always rush to explain, but it never helps.
My siblings have thankfully come around to the humor of it all, making jokes like, “all those still with their thyroids and thyroid isthmuses get dessert!” My mother, though, just grimaces. Her own mother had succumbed to the c-word just months before my first doctor’s visit, slowly and painfully wasting away on the second floor of our house until a final fall on the walkway of our front yard had broken her hip. My grandmother took a long time to die, not because she wanted to live, but because my mother could not bear to let her go yet. Maybe this is why I was never afraid of death. When my grandmother finally went, she was at peace. It was the years of pain, asking for pillows to ease her bones, straining to straighten her scoliotic shoulders, her shuffling down to the kitchen to overdose on her hospice morphine that were so hard. I feared most the extended act of dying, not the actual death. Honestly, I really just didn’t want to shave my head. I think I would have done it though, for my mother.