The Application of the Mask (I.P.)
Plastic surgery, for her at least, was never a serious option; surprising indeed, for one so blessed – scooping, at seventeen, the coveted crown in a local beauty contest; ash blonde hair, ivory skin and a radiant smile. It was such cruel irony, when, two years later, a malignant growth was diagnosed on her parotid gland. Mercifully, the bulk of the tumour was removed with the minimum of scarring directly below her ear, which her hair easily disguised.
For the next ten years she pursued her nursing career and pushed to the back of her mind the inevitability, that at some time in the future, this rare, and slow-growing cancer would, once more, rear its ugly head. Almost eight years later, it did...except now its roots dug deep, and disfiguring surgery was her one chance, and even then it was merely ‘buying time’, which, at the age of thirty, she considered more than worth the gamble.
After the removal of her facial nerve, plus much of her jaw and cheekbone on the affected side, no longer could she smile, shut her eye, or chew her food; understandably, she endured more than a few ‘black’ months in which, as recorded in her diary, she describes herself as a woman with only half a face. Maybe, plastic surgery was the answer, and maybe she should go for it, but somehow the idea didn’t gel, despite the doctors’ keenness to make ‘the best of a bad job’, as she saw it.
Feeling low, and debating this dilemma in her mind, she fell asleep and dreamed about those six weeks of radiotherapy she’d been through post-operation; preparations for which had been tedious and lengthy. Painstakingly, technicians crafted a tailor-made mask – precise to every last curve and contour, to protect the healthy side of her face from potentially damaging rays. How she’d come to dread those claustrophobic, nightmarish sessions, and it was these feelings came back to her whilst she slept...As did the sight of the bonfire she lit in her backyard that autumn evening when her treatment ended and they gave her the mask to take home as a ‘souvenir’. Watching it burn, gave her the closure she so desperately craved.
On waking, she knew the world would just have to accept her, ‘warts and all’. She was the person she had become; a casualty of life – no different from the rest of us. To her way of thinking, having plastic surgery would, in a way, be hiding behind another mask; something she was not prepared to do. Finding renewed courage, she returned to nursing; spurred on by her philosophy that ‘everything happens for a reason’ – immersing herself in study to become a Senior Nurse Lecturer, specialising in the care of cancer patients, both practically and psychologically. Medical expertise had improved drastically since she’d initially been diagnosed, and she’d grown to regard it as a ‘chronic’ disease. ‘Living’ with cancer, wholeheartedly she did for a further eight, rewarding years; rewarding, not only for her, but also for those she taught – both the medical profession and their patients alike...And, as a cruel twist of fate, her last engagement was at a hospice where, a few short months later, she was to make the final entry in her diary.
Philip Larkin, one of her favourite poets, might very well have had this remarkable lady in mind when he wrote:
“In times when nothing stood,
but worsened, or grew strange,
there was one common good,
she did not change.”