Becoming a patient often involves surprises which are hard to categorize, combining as they do a strange interplay of wonder and horror. When I was diagnosed with endometrial stromal sarcoma in 2004, it was a surprise not only to me, but to my surgeon as well. In “Russian Dolls,” I explore the subtle nature of these surprises through the image of nested dolls. For me, these carefully carved, brightly colored playthings evoked half-conscious associations to the womb, with its potential fecundity, awe, and mystery. In my childish mind, these unformed images were always wondrous, exotic, exciting.
Yet what happens when, in a moment of radical surprise, they are stood on their heads, and growth becomes not bountiful, but malevolent, and the possibility of gold is transmuted into the reality of lead? In this case, at the moment of surgical revelation, there was no surprise for me, because I was conveniently anesthetized. My surprise was still to come, and perhaps at the moment of writing this poem, I was still not able to confront it directly. Rather, in a gesture of resourceful empathy, I envision my surgeon’s surprise in this dramatic moment of discovery.* It is an encounter with evil, unpredictable, unexpected, horrible, but in some strange way authentic. Man recognizes monster and monster leers back in response. It is a terrible yet authentic perversion of the I-Thou encounter.
Diagnosis is only the beginning of the surprises. If the condition is rare, and eludes evidence-based prognostications, we ourselves may change in ways that are surprising. When science fails, we are forced to turn to mystery. Surprisingly (yet another surprise), at some core level this response is not foolish or pathetic (although it may be both these things, and more, on first examination), but deeply consoling. We use the tools we have. In the face of our limitations of knowing, of prediction, of certainty, we look for the inexplicable messages that enter our lives through previously disregarded pathways. We become innocent as children, visionaries and dreamers, superstitious, sudden believers in ancient wisdom. It is a surprise, or perhaps a wonder.
*In fact, this poem takes liberties with medical science. Ess can only be diagnosed by careful pathological analysis, so my surgeon’s surprise, though real and profound, actually did not occur until later. Nevertheless, something about imagining that moment of literal encounter between man and tumor pleased me in a perverse way. Since I controlled the poem, if not the cancer, I made it happen.