My Kaiser general practitioner was casual while taking the telederm photos of my face. "You will probably hear from dermatology sometime next week, maybe by Wednesday." I had gone to her for a look-see at a stubborn, anodyne spot above my eyebrow that won't heal. Not thirty minutes later, on a Friday afternoon mind you, the call came in from dermatology's kind-but-clearly-death-message-carrying RN: "We'd like to see you to biopsy it first thing Monday morning." She went right up to the edge of augured and urgent yet ... pleasant.
My first thought in that moment: I'm 50 and dying. My second thought: that motherfucker.
Not the Kaiser RN, my lily-livered birth father.
One of the few things I know about him is that he died from a "rare facial cancer" a few years after I reached out to him only to be rebuffed. Twice. His sister (my aunt—one of two I have not met, but not the writer aunt who lives in the East Bay) could not recall if his illness was related to his skin or his mouth or what but she remembers "rare" and "face." He had quit smoking "in the '70s" like everyone else. That's all she could recount on the cause of his death during our singular, stilted conversation. I shared a few things with her too. Like the fact that he was married when he knocked up my then seventeen-year-old birth mother (who didn't know he was married). He didn't help her out, nor did he tell his family about me (I almost wrote "his illegitimate child" there but I hate that phrase as all children, it turns out, are legitimate ... so no ... not using it). Needless to say, I spent an inordinate amount of time online researching melanoma, longing for any data point, any sliver of information connected to him ... and me. This much I learned: it's hereditary. Thanks, dad.
I had a lot of reasons to be angry at him, even posthumously, but on the aforementioned recent Friday afternoon, I had a new one: because of him, I'd be dead at 50, leaving three daughters, one financée and one dog behind.
The weekend was, in a word, edifying. Would I quit my job(s) and take trips with loved ones to see more loved ones, keeping a journal along the way with words of wisdom for said loved ones? Would I move to Glen Ellen and start a nonprofit for the underserved? Would I curl up in a fetal position and watch The People v. OJ Simpson during the day? Would I try (again) to look certain people in the eye and apologize for my mistakes? Would I cook for the girls around the clock, safe at my stove station? Would I sell it all and homeschool them near the Amalfi Coast?
To wit, would I finally reframe the saccharine question: What would you do if you weren't afraid?, to the trenchant question: What would you do if you were dying?
A half dozen distaff friends and family members with breast cancer are grappling with similar inquiries. On this particular weekend, I would join them. Thoughts awhirl, perspectives disrupted.
By Sunday night, my home was reordered, re-filed, recycled, re-labled. Drawer contents were perfect. I tend to move my hands when my heart is exploding.
Come Monday at 9:50a the Kaiser dermatologist strolled into the exam room, took one look at my forehead and declaimed: "Melanoma is not on the menu."
"Join the biggest club in Marin—the basal cell carcinoma club. Again." I had one removed from my chest last year; should have been my first clue.
"Thank you," I exhaled, understanding in full that this close call was the best thing that could have happened to this 50 year old.
"Cheapest new lease I've ever signed," I quipped, hiding the Kleenex I was clutching.
"You're welcome," said the good doctor.