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Cancer at the Top of My Head

by Louie Crew

"The top of my head?!
But my brain's there.
Does it have cancer too,"
I asked aloud.
But to myself I said
"I wonder if he'll use
a Gorham corkscrew.
'Hieronymus Bosch,
this one's for you babe.'"
I went because the sore on my ear,
nowhere near the top of my head,
took forever to heal and would return hard,
time after time, in a mere 2-3 weeks,
like a dried black-eyed pea.
"Piece of cake. It's just Basal-cell carcinoma,
usually the least dangerous; it almost never spreads,"
the dermatologist said. Then she farmed
me out to a relative beginner, a Russian, 34,
since Basal cell is not glamorous enough
for a dermatologist who has been on Oprah
and multiple other TV shows.
The Russian was cute, very bright, and intense.
It took only a few minutes to remove the 'pea.'
"While I do a biopsy on the cancer from your ear,
do you want me also to do a biopsy
on this interesting dried skin
on the top of your head?"
"He's young," I thought. "No one
seventy-five like me thinks any new dried skin
is 'interesting.' New dead skin, wayfaring hair growth,
anti-acids that suddenly aren't strong enough anymore...
they're not 'interesting'; they're just life."
But to him I said, "Sure, why not."
And wouldn't you know it, the cute bright Russian
discovered Squamous-cell carcinoma smack dab
in the middle of the top of my head.
Squamous-cell cancer metastasizes readily.
"Bosch, Bosch," I thought in panic,
"Will you use Gorham corkscrew,
or something cheap from a Dollar Store? Yipes?
And underneath the skull does my brain ooze with it?"
But I said, "How soon?" and "How long?"
"Two to three weeks from now. No need to rush,"
he said. "My nurse will give you a date.
I can't say how long, only 'as long as it takes.'
Sometimes an hour, sometimes five. I'm the surgeon
and I am my own lab technician, I cut little bits.
Then I analyze squamous cells. If I find them,
I slice again some more little bits. If I don't find them,
we're done, and I sew you back up.
And I don't even have to put you to sleep.
I do it with just a local, and after the first shot
you won't feel a thing.
You can even drive yourself home."
"But when I thump the top of my head,
it feels I am already at bone,
and when I rub the top of my head,
the tight skin resists and moves only slightly.
There can't be much skin there to slice
where this squeamish -- sorry I am projecting --
where this squamous invader steadily strives to spread."
"You have far more flesh on the top of your head
than you imagine," the cute, brilliant surgeon smiled
as he handed me a fancy medical drawing in
many colors showing layer upon layer of flesh
which I cannot even pinch to a fold on the top of my head.
Why am I thinking about wills? Have I updated
my lists of tasks for my husband to complete upon my demise?
They told me that chances are greatest
that people my age will die of other causes
than the worst of the skin cancers.
Why don't I believe them?!
"This is personal, Mr. Bosch, it's people like you
who make it personal!"
The surgery took almost six hours.
The round incision was almost the size of a silver dollar.
The worst part was the stretching, stretching, stretching
of skin from all the outer circle to meet
in one crooked line in the center of the wound.
"Eat your heart out, Joan Rivers
and Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev!!"
I told the brilliant, cute Russian.
I dropped off the Vicodin prescription
on my way home. My husband was patient
and monitored the salves and the pain killer.
He was even patient when I took daily snapshots
of the wound. I put them on a private website
that only the Russian knew about. And the surgeon
liked the progress.
I surprised myself that I stopped the Vicodin
after using only half the prescription
"This is too good to waste on this small pain,
I reasoned. I'll save this for some emergency,
like a filling lost from a tooth on a holiday weekend
when the doctors are all off duty."
"You're obsessive over this," my husband said
a couple of weeks after the snapshots.
"Get on with the rest of your life."
But I notice he did not complain until he saw himself
working at his desk behind me in a couple of the pictures.
I had not thought to ask his permission,
That's how it is when we live our days and nights
with an open wound with someone we love.
One friend whom I told about the snapshots says
she took daily pictures following one of her operations too.
She plans to make a flip deck to show her healing process
as a prompt for small talk during cocktails before dinner.
And how about you? You're in this poem too.
Through how many of the cards in my deck
have you flipped? What wound is open in your life?
This wound of mine has almost healed,
and if you fast flip to the end you'll discover
that I sport a fine new scar to prove it.
"Eat your heart out, indeed,
Joan Rivers & Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev!"
Brilliant young Russian, you did well!

Cancer at the top of my head was previously published in the New Purlieu Review.

Louie Crew is an emeritus professor at Rutgers. Editors have published more than 2,000 of his manuscripts, including four poetry volumes. You can hear Louie Crew read this poem at: http://rci.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/canceronthetopofmyhead.wmv and follow his work at: http://rci.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/pubs.html.