I wrote last week about sudden changes. Well, I had one.
For the last two years I have defined my identity, in part, as Kim’s caretaker. This means I still probably do for her about half of what she does to take care of me, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of perceptions. I feellike a caretaker, largely because it’s a bit more than I was doing for the first 25 years of our marriage. To use the current language, I identify as a caretaker.
This took a sudden, and I hope brief, change this week. I had what I thought was a pimple on my chest. It got a bit bigger and did not pop, so I thought it might be a spider or tick bite. When it continued to grow without popping, I decided (Actually, it was Kim who decided.) to have a doc have a look and remove the tick. Wisely, as it turned out, I had resisted the urge to hack off the top and drain it.
A Saturday trip to a walk-in clinic was, to say the least, sobering. The doc took a quick look and said, “That’s not a tick. It’s cancer.” He suggested I contact my primary care doc, or my dermatologist who had examined me less than a month ago, for a biopsy.
I am no stranger to skin cancer – melanoma on my cheek, three basal cell carcinomas treated with Moh’s Procedure, a few squamous cells and many “suspicious” growths zapped off with the ice gun. So part of me said, “O.K., let’s just deal with this so I can resume this great life I have with Kim in our bark house.” But another part of me remembered what a previous primary care doc had told me – the melanoma cells are circulating in me, waiting for an opportunity to cause trouble. I recall a brief celebration in a dermatologist’s office when I was told that I had a basal cell carcinoma on my face. Celebration? Yes, because I was worried that it was melanoma. The dermatologist said that mine was not the usual response to such news. The doc on Saturday said it’s “probably” not melanoma. How reassuring is that?
My current anxiety is not centered on my mortality. I died once, when I was 17, and it was not a big deal. No, my anxiety has more to do with the shift in identity from giver to receiver of care. (Language note: a giverof care is called a caretaker.) If I am disabled, for whatever reason, who will dispatch my caretaker duties, primarily driving, unscrewing lids, reaching stuff on high shelves, carrying heavy boxes, and telling Kim to rest? Kim still does all the cooking, laundry, etc., so she is the real caretaker, but this thing on my chest, starting to resemble a third nipple, will change how I identify, a somewhat different issue.
But this is not about me. It’s about how we sustain and undergo changes in identity. Kim has invented her identity – an artist – even as she continues to identify as homemaker, mom, wife and grandma – a caretaker. As I write this she is creating a wall sculpture using twigs and insect-mounting pins. She refuses to identify as a cancer survivor. For years I identified as a teacher, then as a writer, then carrier of boxes, then caretaker of Kim and now as a partner with Kim in looking after our new home. I may, for a while, become a patient – an apt term for this identity, as it requires a lot of patience. A lot of you have probably been in the situation of waiting for biopsy results – show of hands, please? Thought so. Kim goes through this every few months – not biopsies, but various kinds of scans and blood tests – but she does not let her cancer define her.
I realize, when I stop worrying, that identity is largely a matter of choice. I choose to identify myself as an unscrewer of lids and high-shelf-reacher – Kim’s partner.