Making a mountain out of a mole

Published August 26, 1996 5:51PM (EDT)

it all began with a mole, a mole on my ribs. Now, moles for me may be
a very different experience than moles are for you, because when I was l8, my
father, who I loved more than life itself, had a mole removed from his back,
and it proved to be melanoma. Five years later, symptoms of a brain tumor
began, and two years after that he died in our little shack above Duxberry
Reef in Bolinas, and life was not okay again for a very long time.

So when I see a mole on my tiny personal self, I get a little edgy. I
see other people with moles and do not necessarily believe that they are
dying -- for instance, after many many years of therapy, I can look at Cindy
Crawford's mole and not instantly imagine her wearing Depends, in a coma.
But when I notice one of my own moles that suddenly looks a little -- what's
the word -- life-threatening, I make an appointment to see my mole man, my main
mole man at Kaiser Hospital, who has been looking at my moles for years now.

I show up and show him my moles, and he always has one of two
reactions -- one is that he claps his hands to his ears and opens his mouth
like the guy on the bridge in "The Scream." The other is that first his face
falls in a crestfallen, Buster Keaton way, but he forces himself to make eye
contact, and then whispers, "I'm sorry."

So last week I had a routine appointment with him right after finishing
the very last revisions on my new book. I suddenly had too much time on my
hands, and was spending much of it obsessing about the book. K-Fucked radio,
the writers' station, was on all the time -- out of the left speaker came the
endless stream of self-aggrandizement, and out of the right speaker the
report that the book is an unmitigated disaster, that my career is over, my
future behind me and I will have to go to work for the phone company. Or
AOL. The problem was largely that I was not going outside enough with Sam,
because I wanted to be by the phone, in case Hollywood called.

So I went to Kaiser, and my mole man looked at my moles with his usual
mix of boredom and contempt, until suddenly he said, "You know what? I think
I'd like to take this one off." He pointed to my ribcage. I couldn't
believe my ears. I felt a vacuumy feeling, like in the old days when the
LSD first came on.

"Excuse me?" I said.

Now this man is not stupid, and he knows that he is dealing with someone
who is perhaps just EVER so slightly more anxious than the average bear. So
he looked bored, and said, "Well. It's a little dark, and a little
irregular, and what with your father's history, I think I'd just feel better
if we cut it out."

"What?" I said. "You'd feel better if we what?"

"If we cut it out. And biopsied it."

"Biopsied it?" I asked in this tiny little voice, like one of the
American gymnasts; a 1 percent body-fat voice. Like little Kerri Strug would sound
if she noticed, upon landing, that there, growing on her broken ankle like a
mushroom, was a dark and irregular mole.

"Let's just do it," he said. "Next week, okay? Make a 30-minute
surgery appointment with the nurse."

"But I'll be gone next week," I said, and my heart was pounding in my
chest and I was trying to imagine telling Sam that Emmy would be his new
mother; and that we would be celebrating Christmas early this year.

"Well then, make an appointment for when you get back," he said.

There were no available surgery appointments until October, so I was
suddenly looking at two months of waiting. And I know me: I would feel a
little more advanced bone loss each day, a little less small motor control. I
looked down at my mole, and it suddenly looked like a blackened version of
Gorby's birthmark. Then I remembered something. I remembered that I
believe in God. And I smote my forehead.

Out in the car, I wrote God a little note that said, "I am feeling
scared, and a little mentally ill. Perhaps you had not noticed." (This was
a little joke. If God does not have at least as good a sense of humor as I
do, I am not interested. I'm out of here, and I'm taking my kid with me.)
"So please help me remember that I am safe, because I am loved. Help me know
what to do, because I am going to take my sticky little fingers off the
controls of the space ship until I hear from you."

This grown-up sort of peace came over me. And even though I was now
feeling symptom after symptom -- pain in my upper jaw, which made me wonder what I
would look like with my entire upper jaw removed, and a sharp pain in my
stomach, which set me to thinking about what life would be like after the
colostomy -- I felt a certain surrender; like I had gone into free-fall, and
landed a foot and half down.

I coped. I endured. I was perhaps a little more like Nathan Lane in
"The Birdcage" than I would have hoped, but all in all, the days passed
without breakdown or hysteria, which, if you ask me, is a lot.

Two days later I went to church, early, wanting an extra oatbag of faith
that day. There was another woman there already, in her late 70s,
black, from the South, who loves me. She has a granddaughter with a tumor on
her heart, ON HER HEART, who is getting chemo and is doing okay, in many
ways, because she is loved and has a lot of faith. So this old woman asked
how I was doing, and I said that I was sort of worried because I had a dark
irregular mole that the doctor wanted to remove, and my daddy died of
melanoma in the brain. And she did not say, "Oh, for Chrisssakes -- my
granddaughter has a tumor on her HEART. And you want me to feel sorry for
you because you have a weird mole?" What she said instead was, "Oh, honey;
that must be so scary for you, loving that little boy like you do."

I said, "Oh, you got that right, baby."

She said, "You just give it all to Him. He'll fill it with His
sweetness. Why don't we pray." We did. And I felt that no matter how it
all shook down, I was going to be okay; more or less.

I went home and called a friend. I said, "I need some support. I'm a
little sad and scared because I have a weird mole, and I have to wait two
months for a surgery appointment."

She said, "That's too long. Definitely. Especially for someone like

I said, "I know you mean that in a nice way."

"I do," she said. "Call the appointment desk first thing Monday
morning, and ask if there are any cancellations. Ask if you can be seen."

And of course there was a cancellation. So Kaiser's melanoma specialist
saw me that day. He studied my mole with his magnifiying glass, and said he
thought it was probably okay, and that he was going to take it out, just to
be safe, because of my history. And then he did, right there in the office.
He gave me a shot of lydocaine, and cut out the mole and stitched me up.

I had my eyes closed the whole time. "Aren't I being brave?" I asked.

"Very brave," he said solemnly.

"Will I get some stickers for being brave when we're done?"

"LOTS of stickers," he said.

Then he put a bandage over the stitches and sent me on my way. He said
the biopsy would take about a week, but that he was 98 percent sure that it was
going to be benign.

"Are those good enough odds for you?" he asked, smiling nicely.

I just rolled my eyes. "Clearly," I said, "You have never worked with
me before."

So I still don't know. I think it will be okay. I have my stitches
still and they hurt a little, probably more than they would hurt a normal
person, but what are you going to do? Sometimes I find myself clutching the
spot on my ribcage where the mole was, cupping my hand over it like I am
trying to keep the intestines from spilling out, but I say to myself, "I love
you anyway, old thing."

Sam asked yesterday if I was brave during the
stitching, and I said I was very brave. I didn't tell him about his
granddaddy's mole. We were sitting outside looking at things: our hillside,
a little yellow house finch, the red rose bush now hung with tiny buds;
small things showing up much brighter these days.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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