I overheard this profound statement of motherly wisdom over this past weekend while at a neighborhood swim club with my family, enjoying some time at the pool. Usually, I dismiss such statements as soon as I hear them, however, this time it was a bit harder to do. You see, as it turns out, the "some people" in question was yours truly.
Hi, I'm Phoenix, I'm 39 years old, and I am a cancer survivor.
That by itself is a heavy statement, I know. It's not the kind of tale that everyone is comfortable hearing about, so I'll forgive you if you've checked out on me. If you're still reading, then I say hi, hello, nice to meet you.
My diagnosis was 15 years ago. The process to get my health back involved two separate surgeries which have left me with some very significant and very visible scars (you won't see them in my gallery since I've taken great pains to hide them), as well as months of radiation therapy. All told, it took almost a while year before the doctors decalred they were finished, but ask anyone who's been through something similar...this is a lifelong odyssey.
Since the surgeries, I've seen all spectrums of human behavior when it comes to my appearance. Some people have said and done nothing, some will look, just a quick glance and carry on...some people that I might get to know might go, "By the way, may I ask what happened?" And the truth is, I don't mind telling. It's a part of my life, it's who I am...some details I leave out as no one would really want to hear them.
Then, there are the gawkers. The ones who stare as if you're Joseph Merrick. And they're not shy about it, either; manners takes a back seat to their curiosity. I'm comfortable in my own skin, but it's characters like those that made it a difficult process. My attitude at the time was like, I'm reminded of how I look everytime I look in a mirror, I don't need you staring at me, okay?
Truth be told, it's been years since I've come across those people. Nowadays, everyone seems to just glance and move on. You learn to tune them out so that it's nothing but white noise. Which made this particular encounter all the more jarring.
It was a young boy, single digit, I'd guess, who was staring at me as I was sitting poolside with my shirt off. Yes, my scars were visible, but while I've never been one to flaunt them, I don't hide them, either (gallery photos notwithstanding...don't want to attract the wrong kind of attention). Besides, I'm not one to wear a shirt while I'm swimming. So it was that this little boy went to his mother, a woman in her late 20s, I'd guess, and said out loud, "Mommy, that man over there has big scratches all over him!"
Now, I wasn't too fazed by this; youngsters tend to not develop the filter between their brain and their mouth until they get a little older, and the mother seemed embarrassed at her son's comment. But apparently, she had no such filter either as she hustled her son toward the snack bar and said, loud enough for me to hear, "Yes, well some people should learn to cover up." For the first time in my life, I felt my jaw drop.
We live in a society where, aside from the occasional exception, what's on the outside tends to have more merit, or at least carries you further than what's on the inside. Don't believe me? Let me introduce you to Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian and then tell me I'm wrong. But how many of us, I wonder, have looked at someone and thought something similar to what this mother said? The person in question, who might have a noticeable birthmark, or perhaps a harelip, or maybe surgical scars like me, or maybe even burn scars, what about the possibility that this person might be out in public only after summoning an enormous amount of courage to do so? And all it would take would be one ill-advised comment to destroy them.
Fortunately, my skin is scarred, but it's also thick as hell. And as it happened, the right retort came to mind at the right time.
I waited a moment and then walked over to the snack bar myself, and went up to the Mother of the Year. There was a sizeable line; we were not alone.
"Excuse me, miss, I couldn't help but overhear the conversation between you and your son," I said.
She turned, saw it was me, and her eyes widened a bit. "Yes, I'm sorry about what he said," she began, but I cut her off. "Yes, but I'm actually thinking about what you said to him as you two were walking away."
I'll give her credit; she didn't try to weasel out of it. She got caught and she knew it.
She said nothing, so I continued, "Miss, years ago, when I was younger than you are now, I had to make a choice; look like this, or die. I chose to live. I apologize for putting my life over the sensibilities of people like you." She looked as if she was gonna drop dead of embarrassment, and as we had witnesses, I was content that I had gotten the right amount of payback, so I left it there and walked away to rejoin my family.
Here's a thought. Instead of being quick to gawk, or stare, or, God forbid, comment about the way someone looks, maybe we should consider that there may be more to their story than is skin deep.
Besides, you never know; it might be you that gets stared at someday.
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