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The Venus de Milo sits poised in the Louvre. Pale marble shoulders flow uninterrupted towards flawless breasts. A sleek profile, with hair curling around a comely ear, exposes the delicate line of an unscathed neck.
A mask is placed over my nose and mouth, filling with a vaguely sweet fog. Just breath deeply. Count backwards from ten. My eyes involuntarily close as the gas steals my consciousness with unwarranted impunity.
An artistic rendering of Venus might be bereft of arms, legs, or a corporeal form. But there is always a face, a head, and a neck. If nothing else, these parts comprise a goddess turned human by the deft hand of a skillful artist. At age seven, I lay insensate and oblivious to the scalpel carving a new silhouette, a bloody mélange of Venus incarnate. If you cut and shape a child, hacking away at what is ugly and distorted, will you create a woman that is whole and divine?
I was born with a hemangioma on the side of my neck.
It's a benign tumor of the blood vessels charmingly referred to as a strawberry birthmark. At six months, the red, bulbous growth enveloped my left ear and obstructed my hearing. Maybe it will go away. My infant neck was powerless to support its magnitude, which wrecked my countenance and twisted my spine. Maybe she’ll outgrow it. A hemangioma can become ulcerated and infected, adding illness to disfigurement. Maybe it won’t go away.
These reasons were pleaded in hope that insurance would cover the desired series of treatments. A girl should not have to grow up looking so different. The insurance would not pay for cosmetic surgery. My doctor had a saying, a joke. “We’ll get you looking beautiful by your junior prom, I promise!” It became a mantra, really. You don’t look pretty now, but you will someday.
Plastic surgery is not pretty. Especially long term plastic surgery, which offers no immediate results and yields no instant gratification. Did Venus suffer the hunger and thirst that precedes an operation? Would she be fitted with an IV and put under anesthetic, only to wake up in terrible pain, confused, bruised, swollen, and vomiting? Is this what happens when a goddess impersonates a human? Each procedure quilted skin to skin with stitches so small and numerous that my doctor could never keep count. He always lost track after fifty. Can you stitch a human to imitate a goddess? Despite the surgical procedures, I still did not look normal, so the entire process would be repeated the next year. And the next. After all, a girl should not grow up looking so different.
For a while, youth shielded me from censure. The natural curiosity of other children had not developed into full-fledged criticism, and for a while they accepted my hemangioma as just another anomalous encounter in their brief life. But the year I was seven was the year, I had tissue expanders. Two sausage-shaped balloons were inserted into my neck and filled with saline. Their purpose was to stretch out my skin, so there would not be a gaping hole in my neck after they severed the remnants of my hemangioma. For two painful months the implants remained in my neck; two months spent not in the seclusion of a hospital, but at home exposed to the real world. It was for the best, though. After all, a girl should not have to grow up looking so different.
When I first came home from the hospital, something strange happened. Despite my best efforts to force my skull upright, my head constantly cocked to the right, My doctor explained my body was reacting to the foreign substance trapped inside the only way it could. It turned away from what was painful and unnatural. I thought that was odd, that my body no longer recognized itself.
The bulbous implants embedded in my neck sparked a catalyst that fractured the definition of human. Everybody stared. Everybody asked questions. After the two months the implants were removed, but I still did not have that instant gratification I so longed for. I still did not look like every one else. I still wasn’t ready for the junior prom; and now the veil was lifted.
Questions and stares ranged from curiosity to disgust. I purposely kept my hair long so it would hide my neck and ear. My family took pains to remind me that my unusual appearance did not make me a bad person. I was kind, smart, and ambitious, but no one said beautiful. If some one loved me, they refrained from mentioning my appearance. Should a child grapple with humanity? I knew nothing but an alien shell.
My last operation was performed when I was fourteen. What was once inspired by a desire to prevent disability, morphed into pure art and confused beauty with perfection. This procedure involved a skin graft. A piece of skin was taken from my groin, and shaped into an earlobe. Trapped in the throes of puberty, just the mention of the word “groin” made me terribly uncomfortable. I was mortified that my doctor had not only seen that secret part of my body, but that he had managed to turn it into an earlobe. When I returned to school the next year, with an earlobe where there previously was none, I could not explain to my friends how it was done. I was too embarrassed. But mortification aside, this surgery was the most memorable because it was my last.
I was tired of it all. I was tired of pain, bruising, swelling, and stitches. I was comfortable with my appearance. Beauty was subjective and fluid; I was never going to look perfect. But that was okay. Because I was smart, and kind, and a good friend. Because I had a family and friends and a God who all loved me, despite my funny-looking ear and my scars. It’s ok to grow up looking different.
When the skin graft operation was over, my mother and doctor discussed options for future treatments. But I was beautiful. I did not need more surgery. I owned my body. I had my own voice.
I declined any future treatments.
My doctor was astounded. My mother was worried. But, I was free. I wore my hair up again. I no longer cared who saw my ear and my neck. The artist never completed the sculpture, but a human emerged anyways.
Twenty-five years after that first operation, I gave birth to another hemangioma, a quarter-sized one attached to right leg of my youngest daughter. I’m inordinately proud this hemangioma. It’s a second chance to let nature, not the scalpel, take its course. At two years old, her hemangioma has already lightened considerably.
A girl can grow up looking different.
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Close up of my left ear and neck, seventeen years after the last operation.
A picture of me at 9:00 pm on a Thursday night in my bathrobe.