Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New Tattoo!

My next-to-last day of radiation, I was walking home and I passed a tattoo parlor. It suddenly came to me that what I wanted to do to celebrate being done with all my intensive treatment (as opposed to the hormone therapy which I will now be taking for five years). Though I had vaguely thought about tattoos before, I never really wanted one, but once I had the thought, I never questioned that it was the thing to do. The next day the nurses and doctor asked me how I was going to celebrate being done and I told them, and I was surprised that no one said, “Really?” or “Are you sure you want to do that?” or even “Don’t get it on the arm where you had your lymph nodes removed” (very important because of the risk of lymphedema). They all said, “That’s a great idea!” The medical assistant showed me a few of her 11 tattoos. The nurse asked me what I was going to get, and although I had not actually thought about it, I said “I think maybe a phoenix.” And that became the answer.

The next day I started looking up phoenixes on the internet, and it turns out that it’s quite a scary, ugly bird. Well, actually, as a friend pointed out, it is a mythical bird, so in theory, it could look any way you wanted, but in all the drawings and paintings I found, it has a kind of scrunched up head and long beak, which I don’t want on my body. So I started looking up other kinds of firebirds, and then I thought of the firebird which the artist Eric Drooker painted on the Apartheid Wall at my friend Munira’s house in Mas’ha (anyone who doesn’t know that story and wants to can read about it at http://www.iwps.info/en/articles/article.php?id=189). He and Munira chose that image because of the sensation of freedom it creates, and I felt like I needed to bring that freedom into my life now too.

I asked around and everyone recommended the same tattoo parlor, Black and Blue Tattoo, the only all-women tattoo place in San Francisco. I looked at the website and decided that Leona, who lived in Mexico for years, would be the best person to render the bird, which Eric said was a Mexican design, into body art. I exported a picture from my video of the mural project, and printed it out in color on an 8 ½ x 11 page. So when I showed it to Leona, who indeed really got the energy of the bird, she said, “Is this the size you want it?” I hadn’t thought about it and said, “Well, it’s a little big,” but she held it up to my body and showed how with the body on my arm and the wings on the back and front of my shoulder, it would fly when I lift my arm, so I said “okay, sure.”

I was unprepared for how long it would take – almost 4 hours, but the pain never got too bad and she did an amazing job. At one point Leona said she could feel the poison draining out of my body as the pigment was going in (I had told her about the cancer and the chemo). In a way it is ironic that I chose to celebrate the end of something that brought so much physical discomfort by doing something that caused discomfort of its own, but it feels right. I know some of you will have religious or other objections to it, but I can only repeat, it feels right to me. In years to come, the memories of the cancer experience will fade (I trust), and of course the tattoo will fade over time too, but it will always be a reminder of survival.

I kept this blog in part to help others who go through a similar experience, and I can’t tell you how happy it’s made me to hear that some of you have given it to people you know who are dealing with cancer, or that it has made you feel that if it happens to you, you can get through it. So I feel like I need to be clear about one thing, just in case anyone gets the wrong idea. Getting through this has given me some perspective on my life and things in it, and of course that’s something to be grateful for however it comes. But cancer is not a gift, an adventure or a sacrament. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason (that is, it happens for some reason, but not a good reason), that it’s all part of G-d’s plan or that He never gives us more than we can bear. Cancer is a terrible thing that I wish didn’t happen to people, and to be honest, I especially wish it didn’t happen to me. And within reason, given that I’m not going to obsess or change my lifestyle completely, I am doing whatever I can to make sure I don’t get it again.

Of course, with what’s happened to our beautiful Bay in the last weeks, all of our prospects for being healthy are getting worse every day. (For people not in the area, a container ship crashed into the Bay Bridge and dumped 58,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay two weeks ago; volunteers were soaking up the oil on the beaches with their hair, but the crab and fishing seasons are set to resume next week and today, the Chronicle had pictures of swimmers going back into the water.) Bless those of you who did the ritual on Saturday, I wish I could have joined you, and all of you who are continuing to do rituals or offer prayers, and of course Lisa and others who are working all the time to protect our endangered habitat.